Beyond Global Trade: How the Pandemic Made Eating Local a Lasting Trend
by morgan williams
Covid-19 temporarily changed how we travel and forever changed how we work. To a lesser-known extent, it’s also changed the way we eat. When supply chains crumbled in 2020, producers were forced to find new ways to turn a profit, and with grocery store shelves laid bare, consumers were more inspired than ever to find a local food source. Over the past three years, co-ops, local meat processing facilities, and small ag businesses have found a way into consumer’s hearts, and they’re hoping this new way of eating is here to stay.
The Farm to Table movement has been popularized by restaurants in more recent times. Still, it’s an age-old idea that essentially means production, processing, distribution, and consumption all happen within a local area. It's the opposite of how we have come to rely on purchasing goods in a world characterized by global trade.
When consumers started panic buying toilet paper in 2020, the topic of supply chains dominated media coverage. Global sickness & quarantines, distancing mandates & government regulations paired with price controls upended the distribution of goods worldwide.
A supply chain is loosely defined as the network of all the entities involved in creating and selling a product. As production and shipping shut down worldwide, consumers faced exorbitant prices for essential products like beef. Meatpacking plants nationwide were forced to slow production or close entirely due to sick workers and distancing mandates. Closed plants resulted in full feedlots, and ranchers, who would typically sell their livestock in the fall, needed somewhere to go with their cattle.
Ranchers have faced many challenges over the decades, and a global pandemic became just another reason to adapt and innovate. The United States is the largest producer, and second-largest importer of beef in the world, but 85% of the country’s meat-packing plants are owned by four companies. With few processing facilities in the state, Montana ranchers have historically had little incentive to find a local market. In 2020, the landscape started to change.
Located just seven miles outside of Billings is Blue Creek Marbled Meat Company. Like many ranchers during the pandemic, 69-year-old Spencer Griffin couldn’t find a processor for his cattle. A lifelong entrepreneur, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
The Griffin family has been ranching since the early nineties, and has always had the vision and goal of “developing superior traits in carcass, ribeye, marbling, and fat to bring a top-quality product to the consumer.” The plant was almost entirely funded with family dollars, but the project was about more than just the Griffins. When running at full capacity, Marbled anticipates processing 25,000 head of cattle each year, offering many Montana ranchers the opportunity to put their beef directly into the hands of consumers.
Modern farming and ranching operations are always looking for ways to diversify. In 2020, the Hollenbeck family bought a smaller processing plant in Forsyth, MT, now known as Cowboy Meats. Because Covid brought a renewed desire for consumers to have a quality, local product readily available, Cowboy Meats has grown to process more than ten heads of cattle a week, and they hope to scale to five times that amount. The Hollenbeck’s say customers love knowing where their beef is coming from, and how it was cared for.
This desire to know “your” farmer or rancher has continued to drive business toward local cooperatives like the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub (YVFH). In a near-prophetic move, the YVFH opened its doors in Billings in 2019. Handling all marketing, inventory, and delivery for producers, the YVFH is doing its best to make eating locally a no-brainer. By providing direct access year-round to delicious, quality food from nearby farms and ranches, the YVFH hopes to foster a relationship with the people who grew it.
Though global trade remains (and rightly so) a vital part of our economy, YVFH General Manager Carrie Stokes Holst emphasized the need for local cooperatives: “I think it’s important that we consider how we help support both (local and global producers) so that when we don’t have everything on the international level, it’s not a desolate landscape that hasn’t been nurtured at all.”
In a country characterized by independence, the great irony of a global pandemic was the stark reminder that we are all linked together. The ability of farmers and ranchers to rise and adapt in a time of crisis has given us all a chance to eat better and more simply, and while the pandemic is behind us, it’s clear that local producers are here to stay.
Eat local while eating out; here are restaurants and caterers serving local products:
- BW Blacksmith
- Meadowlark Brewing
- The Granary
- Buffalo Block
- Topz Sandwich Company
- Marble Table
- The Backporch
- Jake’s Downtown
- Montana Outlaw BBQ
- Basil and Bloom
- Scratch Kitchen