[0:00]: Intro to Bones Brothers Ranch in Birney, MT
[2:45]: Intro to meatpacking monopoly issue
[5:45]: Jeanie’s connection to the rugged geography of her home on the Tongue River Valley
[8:05]: Jeanie’s land ethics and family’s history in SE Montana
[10:30]: The women who kept the Alderson family together
[12:30]: Growing up around rural organizing and Jeanie’s parent’s role in founding Northern Plains
[13:15]: Coal mining plans for Powder River Basin in 1970s
[15:00]: Tensions of how extractive industries pull apart communities
[18:15]: Leaving the ranch to get an education and feeling homesick
[21:00]: Moving back home after getting a master’s degree
[22:00]: Jeanie’s work with the Tribal college and language preservation
[22:55]: Homecomer movement
[24:50]: Maintaining good relationships with neighboring ranchers
[27:40]: managing two herds and businesses
[31:00]: Jeanie and Terry’s grass-fed Wagyu business
[32:45]: Shipping frozen beef through the airport
[34:40]: Caring for land, water and animals are connected
[35:30]: Jeanie's experience being interviewed by The New York Times and testifying in front of Congress
[37:00]: How members and Northern Plains staff collaborate
[38:00]: Learning how to speak out thanks to Northern Plains
[39:15]: The history of rural extraction and how it impacts ranchers
[41:30]: Big Four Meatpacking monopoly and rural extraction
[42:15]: Get big or get out
[42:45]: 40% of ranchers have gone out of business since the 1980s
[43:30]: Merging of meatpackers since 1980s and deregulation
[44:10]: Producer share of consumer dollar down to 37%
[45:00]: Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and example from Jeanie's ranch
[47:00]: The role of removing COOL in creating "captive supply"
[50:00]: Why everyone should care about livestock market reform
[52:20]: Lessons from Northern Plains Resource Council
“Omega Beef: Grass, Water and Community,” Homegrown Stories
“Standing Together: Protecting Land, Air, Water, and People,” Hardcover Anthology written and curated by Teresa Erickson
“Record Beef Prices, But Ranchers Aren’t Cashing In,” The New York Times
"Consumers deserve to know where their meat comes from," The Western News
Shining A Light On A Corrupt Market," The Guardian
Guest: Jeanie Alderson
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editor and mixing: Rob Upchurch
Episode music: Andrew Drinnan
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Greater Montana Foundation
In Southeast Montana where raw red Earth breaks free from the steady pulse of the Yellowstone and its tributaries the Tongue River and Hanging Woman Creek, rests a ranch, flanked by pine ridges in a valley blessed with water and with stewards like Jeanie Alderson. Jeanie has been shaped by the valley as much as the rugged landscape has been steadily carved by the flowing water that has slowly cut through it for eons. Bones Brothers Ranch, her home in the Tongue River Valley, was established not long after the Battle of Little Big Horn at the end of the romanticized open range era that lives on in Western movies. Named after Big Bones and Little Bones, brothers who sold fleets of horses for use in world wars one and two, the Bones Brothers Ranch and broader Tongue River Valley have been a prolific source of cultural lore and rural organizing since the formation of the working cattle ranch in the 1880s. This craggy ranching country is also where Nannie T. Alderson wrote “A Bride Goes West,” where Floyd Alderson learned the horseback and ranching skills he took to Hollywood as a cowboy star, where Irving Alderson, Jr. and Carolyn Walker helped form the Northern Plains Resource Council to protect the Powder River Basin from industrial-scale coal mining, and today where their daughter Jeanie Alderson and her husband Terry Punt are calling for reform in the meatpacking industry to keep the family’s over-century-year-old ranch alive.
Jeanie Alderson: You mention livestock market reform and people’s eyes glaze over and they think that, oh that’s just a sad problem for a handful of ranchers and who really cares about them because it’s big ag anyway and big ag is causing all these problems so let’s just get outside the system and let’s just buy local. Believe me I completely support and depend upon people buying local, but the story of what’s happened in the beef industry, the concentration of power and money and also political capture, it isn’t just a problem a few ranchers have. It’s the story of rural America and it’s the story of our democracy.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today a conversation with Jeanie Alderson, a rancher, rural activist and former board chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council, living in Birney, Montana. Jeanie and I were introduced a few short weeks before The New York Times printed “Record Beef Prices, but Ranchers Aren’t Cashing In,” a front-page article on the “Big Four” – four meatpacking monopolies whose dominance over the livestock industry has enabled the companies to extinguish competition and dictate prices. Through a wave of mergers and acquisitions that began in the 1980s the oligopoly, or lack of market competition, has driven the percentage ranchers receive for every consumer dollar spent on beef in the grocery store down from more than 50 cents on the dollar to 37 cents on every dollar spent. While consumers are paying more for beef than ever before, ranchers are receiving less.
Northern Plains likens the meatpacking monopoly to a hypothetical in which you’re selling your home in a depressed open market with minimal competition. Imagine you are in a situation where you must either sell your house to a group of real estate conglomerates or risk not being able to sell at all. With no one but the massive realtors to sell to – realtors who base their offer on the average price of homes sold on the day they decide to buy it – you’re forced to sell to them at an amount that is less than what you’ve put into your home.
That’s what’s happening to ranchers across the country. American meat producers are also getting shafted because of a mandatory country of origin labeling law that was revoked in 2016. Without mandatory country of origin labeling companies are allowed to put a USA product label on beef if it has simply been processed or packaged here. This meat could have been raised in Australia or Uruguay, but if it was wrapped in plastic and made ready for sale in the U.S., it can be stamped with a “Product of the USA” label. The Big Four meatpackers lobbied to remove the mandatory country of origin labeling law as it has better enabled them to import cheaper meat from outside the U.S. which is not only undermining the market for American ranchers, it’s misguiding consumers.
I’m prefacing this episode with these complicated and interconnected meatpacking and global supply chain issues as it’s necessary to understand in order to grasp what is happening to ranchers like Jeanie, and what we all stand to lose if ranchers continue going out of business. Ranching is a critical part of our rural and national economies, and the climate solution as grasslands and regenerative grazing practices sequester carbon.
My conversation with Jeanie begins with her connection to these grasslands. We’ll also touch on her family’s multi-generational membership with Northern Plains Resource Council, her work in both the commercial cow-calf industry and raising grass-finished Wagyu Beef, and we’ll discuss how the Big Four meatpacking monopoly fits into a broader history of rural extraction and the legacy of rural organizing in standing up for working landscapes and today calling for the enforcement of the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act to restore competition in the livestock market.
Torgerson: The animating question of season two has to do with the geographic replace background of guests’ childhoods and how this shapes how they think about their place identity, or perhaps the work that they do today. As a rancher, I feel like place is more than just a facet of your identity or your occupation. It's really life itself. So when you think about the place where you're from, and your continued attachment to Birney, what comes up for you?
Alderson: Thank you so much for that question. This place is really who I am. This landscape isn't just where I raise cattle and make a living. It's a living part of me, you know, like, an extension, like a limb, like who I am. And, you know, the hills around here, they’ve always been where I go to recharge, to find solace, to make sense of the world. I know if I can hike or ride to the top of the hill pasture, I can get perspective. And it's that part of remembering who I am, or if I'm far away. It's this ground, but also this place that brings me home to myself, I guess.
And there's something about the Tongue River Valley, I think that's also special. It has a way of holding people that come here and grabbing their hearts. You know, this is the place where the Northern Cheyenne when they were moved to Oklahoma, they walked back here in the wintertime being chased by 20,000 U.S. troops, and they got back here, this small band of them. And it also happens to have the most sort of amazing kind of short grass prairie - you know, some of the best grasslands in the world. And this is kind of semi-arid, really kind of high desert country. So the fact that our particular ranch is at the confluence of two small creeks, and we have a smattering of artesian springs, it also makes this particular place, the East Fork of Hanging Woman Creek and Hanging Woman Creek, a particularly special place.
Torgerson: Wow. Oh, I've driven through and I wish I could sometime stop at your ranch and see it for myself. It sounds really beautiful.
In a recent interview you gave with WBUR you said "I belong to this place more than it belongs to me," which is really a beautiful phrase that I think touches on how our time on Earth is fleeting, and we're really renting this place from future generations. And at one point in the arc of time, you were that future generation to your ancestors. And yeah, so I'd love to learn more about your family's history on the Bones Brother's Ranch in Southeast Montana.
Alderson: Yeah, I think that land ethic, that idea that we're just here for a little while, and our work is to care for this place for future generations. I think a lot of ranchers grow up with that. I certainly did. My dad's part of the family, they came from the Deep South. My great granddad and his brothers came up from Texas with the cattle herds that came up in the 1880s. My great-granddad was from Alderson, West Virginia, but he was an abolitionist. So he had to leave. And they then moved to Atchison, Kansas, actually, that's where my great granddad and his older [siblings were from.] There were several siblings, but the last two children were born actually in Kansas, and then they went to Texas and came up to Montana in 1880s. And in some ways, I think they were coming for a new life, I think maybe they were coming to make their fortune and do something else. But maybe it's my luck, they didn't really make their fortune. They stayed. And really, it's the women, it's my great-great aunts. I really owe being able to be here today to those women that held families together, that held the land together, and many of them lost their husbands early. They went broke a bunch of times, but they held on and they raised children and they kind of held us together and I know we owe our ability to be here today to them.
I guess what's what I mean, when I said this place, that I belong to it. It's this incredible responsibility. My dad talks about the very early titles to the land, they read like marriage licenses. This land is yours to have and to hold. I mean it really is this kind of covenant, this contract, I am going to take care of you. Anyway, that's what I was brought up to think and to know: to give back more than you take.
Torgerson: It sounds like you grew up with some really powerful matriarchs and just naturally having some beautiful land ethics instilled in you. I wonder if you realized that growing up or it was just part of life? And you're like, "yeah, this is this is just how I was raised," but I feel like it's really special to hear you reflect back on that, on the people and the ethics that were instilled in you.
Alderson: Well, I mean, mostly when I was growing up, it was actually old men that were around. It was my granddad, my great uncles. But they were very conscious about the women who had raised them. My granddad's mother actually died when he was very small. So he was raised here on this ranch by his aunt. She raised seven boys here. And my dad is kind of a special person in that way. I think he spent time with those old ladies, you know, the first ones that came up here from the south. And so they were dear to him. And they were storytellers. That's the other thing, you know, they had lost a lot. They'd had hard times. They had weathered all kinds of really hard and sad things, but he knew them. They babysat him, they took care of him when his parents left. And they told him stories, and his memory of them is that they were grateful for where they were, and they laughed and held these stories. That's also a part of who we are, and a part of the flaws, the mistakes the hard times too you know. I think that's something that I've been able to learn is, that's a big part of it. I mean, there's a lot of hard things in my history, and being able to be still and listen and recognize the privilege that I have in that here I am today, trying to stay in business and keep this land together, but incredibly grateful that I get to have that responsibility.
Torgerson: Yeah, I love stories as well and just find them so helpful in helping us understand where we come from and where we're going. And your family has such a rich history of resiliency and advocacy through the Northern Plains as well, the Northern Plains Resource Council and yeah, so I'm wondering what it was like to row up around rural organizing and citizen lobbying? What did that mean to you growing up? And what has that come to mean to you as you've gotten older?
Alderson: Thank you again, for that question. Because I really think that kind of advocacy - the work of protecting our grass, our water, our land, our businesses, our way of life - it's just a part of ranching in these times. And I don't know that everyone realizes it. But I certainly grew up with that. You know, in the early '70s, we were faced with massive coal strip mining and coal power generation. I mean, there was something called the North Central Power Study that came out and it had plans for the whole entire Powder River Basin. I mean, it was not just coal mines, but power plants, slurry lines, railroads. It was massive, and my parents went to a meeting where that kind of unfolded. And they quickly realized that the water - and all the all the other things the roads and the mines would be disturbing - but what the loss of their water meant for ranching. And so my mom in particular realized, and it was mostly the women that got together because the men… I mean, we are just a reticent culture. We don't tell other people what to do with their land. We're not in other people's business and Northern Plains started with kind of the little groups that were organizing, but they had connections, they knew each other. For example, there was a group in the Bull Mountains that had already started. And that was kind of the very start of Northern Plains. But we knew some of those folks in the Bull Mountains because they had lived in Birney and they had moved to the Bulls. We knew folks on the Rosebud. And then, so those of us in the Tongue River Valley were organizing. (My mom wasn't at the very first meeting of Northern Plains, but she was at the second one.)
And the courage they had was kind of daunting, but you know, the road to activism is not easy. And it can be really hard on the children of activists, especially in small towns, especially where, you know, there's pretty clear boundaries for how everyone's supposed to get along and who speaks up and who speaks out. And women really weren't supposed to be you know, doing this kind of thing and so while I knew what my mom and other folks at Northern Plains were doing was really important, I was five or six, seven, you know, I just wanted a normal mom. I wanted a mom that was going to be home to make cookies for the school bake sale or make my Halloween costume and I didn't really want a mom who was gone to meetings or on TV or, you know, even though I was always proud of her.
I also knew that there were a lot of people who really didn't want her speaking up. And that was hard. And a lot of it in a small town plays out in the school yard. There's not a lot of gathering places. These are the kind of things that don't really get into an environmental impact statement: what big extractive industry does to a community and a community where you need each other.
I mean, in our community for 130 years we've worked together. We depend upon each other. And so when those ties, those families, have different ideas of what they want... I mean, we wanted to keep ranching, we needed our grass and water to do that. Other people saw their coal as their birthright, and they wanted that, you know, and so. It was really, really hard on our community. But also growing up like that brought these really interesting, passionate, caring people to our ranch, you know, some of the young folks that would come to the ranch, helping us fight off all this massive kind of extraction, some of them seemed strange, you know, to a kid. But they also clearly adored the place, they clearly adored my parents. They kind of showed me at a very young age that we mattered, you know. They'd help us do our chores and ask us questions and cared about our life. And I think that that really had a big impact on me. And I think there's so many lessons that we are now really leaning on, that those early folks with Northern Plains [knew.] I don't know how they figured all this stuff out. And they were so courageous. So I'm really grateful to that.
Torgerson: What an impact to know that you mattered growing up. I think that a lot of rural kids don't get to have that experience as much.
And I was flipping through the anthology documenting the 50 year history of the Northern Plains Resource Council and I came across this just beautiful photo of your mom, beaming and shaking Jimmy Carter's hand. It’s really cool that you have that history as part of your family history, and also, like the experience of what coal did to your communities. I remember reading too about a meeting in a gymnasium at a school and families getting together to discuss the possibility of coal, and some families were just divided down the middle. And just yeah, thinking about the less glamorous side of that activism does, or I mean what coal does to a community, not the activism.
Alderson: You know, I think that's the part that's just heart wrenching.
Torgerson: And so there came of course, a time when you had to leave the ranch and you left to get an education. What was it like when you pulled out of the driveway and you left this community that that meant so much to you growing up? Did you think you would come back and how hard was it to leave?
Alderson: Well, actually my mom really wanted us to get an education, so she actually sent us away for high school. So I actually left in high school. I went to eighth grade in Buffalo, Wyoming. So because I grew up in a country school, a two room schoolhouse, my mom kind of wanted me to be used to being around a few more people. That was really hard. I lived with another family and went to a public school, a great school, but boy, all I did was wait to get home on the weekends. And you know, up to that point, I've been wearing my hair in braids, and suddenly it's like the '70s Farrah Fawcett and I was tall anyway. It was such a big adjustment.
And then I went way back east for boarding school, and there were things about that, that I loved. But I always had this homesickness. You know, my mom would send me care packages with cookies and stuff, and she'd stick in a little sprig of sage or, you know, maybe a little feather or something. And I always had that deep homesickness. And some of the things I was good at, like horseback riding or roping with my dad - none of that had any place, and it was way before being out west was kind of cool. Montana and Wyoming people were like, "where is that? Do people still live in, you know, cabins and teepees?" And it later became a more interesting thing, but in the '80s, early '70s, It was a really big leap. And I always kind of felt like in some ways, I worked my way home, but then I did go off to college and got to go to graduate school, got to travel. I mean, I really was lucky that I got to go away, but it was always kind of hard.
Torgerson: Yeah, and what was it like coming back and what were the circumstances that led you back home?
Alderson: Well, a couple things. Part of it was, I was just weary of being homesick. You know, when you take a plant and you take a clipping and you put it in a glass of water, and you're just kind of letting the roots grow but you're waiting to get it back into dirt? I kind of felt like I was just as plant clipping I was carrying around, and I was just tired of being homesick. So it was the early '90s I'd been to graduate school in Montana, so that had been at the University of Montana, but then I left again. I kept thinking I was supposed to do something else in a bigger city to make my living. I didn't really realize that - no, you know what, you can just go back and punch cows. But as I kind of realized that a couple of things happened. The Tongue River Railroad was really popping back up as a real threat, and this is a coal hauling railroad that was supposed to go through our ranch. And also my sister was having a baby. And I just realized, you know what, my dad can't fight this railroad on his own. And I want to be there for this little person coming into the world. And I'm homesick, so I'm just gonna go home. My mom was like "Oh, God, what are you going to do in Birney, Montana with a master's degree?" And it's been amazing. It turned out amazing what I did get to do, but it was a big leap. And it was scary and lonely at first.
Torgerson: Wow. Was it a kind of a culture shock to move back home as well, because you had been to all these bigger places and kind of seen different things? Or did it feel just like coming home?
Alderson: You know, there were definitely moments of like, "oh, my gosh, what have I done," but I got involved with Northern Plains. I also went right away to the tribal college 30 miles away in Lame Deer. You know, I just jumped into a lot of things knowing that I could do ranch work, but I if I was going to make a living and be able to stay there, I had to get a job too. I also worked for Rosebud County Literacy Program. And I ended up getting to do this incredible work with the Northern Cheyenne Language Preservation Program. I got to do some wonderful work with adult and family literacy. And then of course, the Northern Plains work. But mostly coming home, I did have that sense that I could breathe. I mean, still being able to sort of walk out my door and hike for miles and miles and miles and not see anybody. That is something that I still do to this day. You know, now I've been here - I don't know more years than I've not been here - but I still really, really value that.
Torgerson: Recently, there's been a resurgence of people come moving back to rural communities, like it's called the Homecomer Movement. And so it's cool to hear your story. You're an original homecomer.
Alderson: Wow, that's so cool.
Torgerson: Yeah, check out the Homecomer podcast by Sarah Smarsh.
Alderson: I have to think about that, because my boys are just... ones in college now. And one is a junior. And so I'm in this exciting, but also heartbreaking time of a they are our really good help, and so I'm losing that. But you know, they're going out into the world and this whole like - will they have the opportunity to come back and ranch even if they want to, but will they want to come back. And I do know from my own lived experience that to come home, you really have to be able to go away. In some instances, not for everybody, some people know from the time they're born, this is all they want. This is what they want. I think a lot of ranch kids have a lot of responsibility and a lot of work and are in some pretty dangerous situations. And some thrive in that. Some just want to get away, and I've really tried with my boys to kind of balance things out, but always give them the option to follow what their dreams are, and not to put too much weight [on them]. I know they feel the weight and responsibility of holding on and caring for this place. But I also know in the current situation, they need to find a way to make a life. But I love to know that there is a homecomer movement, because that is really neat.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And I love the example that you've set for your boys too. Like you went off and got an education, but then you applied it with the language revitalization work that you did locally with the tribes. And so yeah, people are making it work.
You've said before that your life depends on grass, water and your neighbors. And I was wondering if you could share with listeners the value of maintaining both healthy grasslands and good relationships with your neighbors as a rancher and Northern Plains member and a member of the Birney community?
Alderson: Yeah, well, our work - the gathering, sorting, moving, branding, all these things that we do - a lot of it we can do just our own, just my dad, Terry and I. We can do a lot of this stuff and with our boys too, you know. But there are times when we really depend upon our neighbors and they depend upon us. Like we once had a horse, for example, fall in an old well. It was so awful. He was still alive, but we had no way to get him out. But our neighbors - everybody was really busy, it was springtime - but everybody dropped what they were doing. They brought equipment. They brought stuff that we didn't have. They stopped their whole day. We got this horse out of the well, and he recovered and was fine. But those are the hard things [neighbors help with]. When we ship our calves, all our neighbors will come. If we're gathering them - sometimes we gather them in a corral that's several miles away from the scale house - and so our neighbors will all come with their trailers, and they'll haul calves. And we do the same for them. Some of the ranches have big brandings where they still need ropers and calf wrestlers, and all of that.
You know, another ranch on the river, they go through our entire ranch with their big herd of yearlings. And we help them do that, and we let them go through and pasture for a brief time as they go through. I mean, these are just the things you know [we do for each other.] If we can buy hay from our neighbor, it's great because it's we know where it's raised. And it's also less hauling that kind of thing.
And then even further out folks that raise and make hay pellets and feed in the Miles City area, well, they depend on small ranches like ours, who often don't raise enough feed. So our economy - these businesses - [is made up of] our immediate neighbors. And then there's the extended out kind of neighbors where we do need each other. And so if our neighbors go out of business - that help, those people that you know, that you can count on - they're just not there anymore and it makes it really hard.
Torgerson: Those are great examples. And I think that just articulates the importance of the work that like Northern Plains is doing too because on the ground, those real relationships need to be maintained. Otherwise, the industry itself just will collapse. Like you need the neighbor to help pull the horse out of the well and haul the cows off for sale.
Alderson: Yeah, yeah, and so maintaining a community of ranches, the integrity of it - it's just as huge to all of us as being able to stay in business.
Torgerson: To maintain the viability of your ranch, you run two operations, you're in the commercial cow calf business, and you raise and sell grass-finished Wagyu beef direct to consumer. I assume you have to keep your herds separate, of course, to maintain their genetics? And I'm just wondering, have there been moments when it's felt logistically challenging to raise two separate herds? And how do you and your family like split up the tasks of feeding and caring for your cows along with delivering meat to consumers?
Alderson: Really interesting question, well the only time they're completely separate - the mother cows are separate during breeding season. That's because our beef business is a wagyu herd. So it's a different breed of cattle, and it's a closed herd. So we use some parts of the ranch that are really, really remote and really kind of rough country. And so in breeding season - from say, we turn the bulls out in June, but June to kind of early September - the mother cows are separate [from the other] the beef cattle, because they're not going to get bred and can run with the main cow calf herd in the summertime, they'll run together. And then in the wintertime, we keep all our bulls together.
But this drought has put some pressure on both businesses, because Omega Beef, our wagyu business, really can't get much bigger, because the land can only sustain a certain number of cattle. So it's put a little pressure on the number of cattle that the cow calf operation can have. And when there's plenty of grass, which there has usually always been, it all works pretty well. This year, both businesses have had to cut back on numbers pretty drastically, just because of, you know, feeding in the winter and some of the restrictions going out onto the national forest land and just taking care of the grasslands.
So there's definitely challenges. In terms of the work, I mean, so much of it falls on my husband, Terry. He does this amazing job, particularly in the winter. He's the main person that feeds everybody, and [implements] the strategy involved in keeping animals really well fed through a hard winter, but also not wasting hay, preserving hay, not putting too much pressure on the pastures. We all plan this stuff out together, but a lot of the day to day work falls on Terry. But family members and neighbors help us like I already said during some of the bigger events of our year. And when we gather and store, we've got neighbors and family members come and help us with those. And we're so grateful to them. The actual, like getting our beef cattle to the butcher, and then moving all the beef... so we sell by the half and whole beef - and so there can be times where it feels like oh my gosh, we've got we've got kids. We've got two businesses going and everything's happening all at once. So we try to balance it out, but it is pretty demanding.
But we've tried to keep our business really simple. That's the other thing because we're so busy. We don't sell by the individual cut. We don't go to farmers markets. I'm not shipping boxes. We're so remote that we don't have something like second day air here. I don't have a USDA walk-in freezer. I don't have some of the facilities. So to keep it simple, we sell by the half and whole beef. And that seems like a really hard and inconvenient way to sell, and people will tell you "in the age of Amazon, customers are used to things being really convenient." But we've found a community of people that get together that buy in bulk. It's grown over 16 years, but it's really special. And what happens when people get together to split their half or split their whole? It's really, really fun. And our customers, I'm just so grateful to them. I'm also really proud of the diversity of our customers. We've got some neighbors that buy our beef. We've got some folks who were you know, real foodies that love the idea of wagyu and grass-finished wagyu. We have others that just buy it because it's how they've chosen to spend their food dollars and they really appreciate it.
Torgerson: How far do you deliver, like, what is the furthest place that you're delivering beef to?
Alderson: Well, the ones that Terry and I deliver ourselves, we go all the way to Missoula, which is across the state and over two mountain passes. But I started doing that mostly because my mom had lived in Missoula, but that's the farthest. And then we go down to Gillette, Wyoming. We've got a customer in Culbertson. We do a little bit of out of state shipping. We ship to Idaho, Seattle, Portland, and they they're great customers. We ship to Chicago. And then my cousin who was a fisherman in Alaska had a good friend who worked for Alaska Airlines and she ordered a half beef because her friend could get it shipped on Alaska Airlines for really great rates. So then once they got their beef, some of the other Alaska Airlines folks saw this beef coming off the plane and like "what is this, we want in on it now," and that's now a really fun exchange. I [do however] age every time I put boxes of frozen beef throug the baggage check at the Billings airport. It feels like how is this gonna work, but somehow it does. And the thing is, Alaskans are so hardy and tough. You know they're used to buying in bulk and filling freezers. And they're also used to really expensive meat. So that's been kind of fun. Although, like I said it is a little bit nerve racking in July to put beef through the baggage check.
Torgerson: Yeah. Oh, my, one of my sisters lives in Alaska, and she always brings down fish for Christmas dinner, and this Christmas, I was like flying back to Seattle from Missoula, during like all the crazy flight shutdown circumstances and I had a box full of beef from my cousin and that my parents, you know, they have a full big freezer in Missoula. I met a nice lady from Helena originally who lives in Seattle who offered to give me a ride home from the airport, which was so nice and I like ripped open my box and I gave her a couple T-bones and said thanks so much. I love those relationships.
Alderson: I do too. Yeah, it's very fun. I mean sometimes my dad - who's you know, longtime cow calf producer - looks at what we're doing with all this driving around and all this work. He just sometimes scratches his head and like my brother in law is like, "seems like you're doing a sort of a community service just driving a really great beef around the state. How is this working?" And it doesn't always quite work but [I love] the community. And I love producing great food. We are driven by - I love the concept and the chef Dan Barber kind of spoke about it in an interview I heard, but the way in which taste and flavor and care for land and care for animals - all runs parallel. Those are all connected.
Torgerson: So when we spoke before you mentioned that you are a shy person who comes from shy people, and I'm wondering what your experience has been testifying in front of Congress and being interviewed by the New York Times and nationally syndicated radio about the meatpacking monopoly? Were you nervous at all to be on a large stage or were you just thankful?
Alderson: I do, I feel a little bit like throwing up every time I do something like that. I mean, my dad isn't really a shy person. He's a very gregarious person, but I really am shy. And I also want to honor my community, and I also want to build bridges. I'm a middle child, I want people to get along. You know, sometimes when you're speaking out, and you're saying hard things, you want to be really articulate and clear. And some of this stuff is hard to talk about. And so getting it right feels like a lot of pressure. And it really is. There's so much at stake with this. So I'm blessed and honored to get the opportunity. But I also kind of look around and think, you know, there are a lot of other people who can really articulate this a lot better than I can, why me? And so I do feel shy about it, because it's really important. And I mean, I feel both shy and honored. I was one of those kids that when people came to the house, I ran for the hills, or at least the back of the house.
And so I think I owe Northern Plains for really teaching us that, even if it's shaky, speak out, no one is going to do this, but you no one's going to take care of this place, but you and you are the best spokesperson for your land. And here's some tools of how to do it. And the way Northern Plains works, it really is truly grassroots. We, as members, we have these amazing staff who get us information and help us and support us and help us think through things, but we bring the issues to the organization. We work together to come up with strategies. It's really a team effort. And it always has been. Often [members] have been younger, maybe more liberal, and some of them were again, ranch kids who'd gone off to college and had come home to their ranches. That was the early start of the staff for Northern Plains and then these kind of quieter, more reticent, maybe more conservative ranchers [joined,] those are sort of the roots of our beginning. We've since branched out, we've got townspeople. We have all kinds of folks across Montana, who care about this state and about taking care of it and kind of rural and homegrown prosperity and an economy that serves people, not just corporations. Northern Plains has taught me a lot about how to how to get over shyness. I owe a lot of my ability to speak out to Northern Plains a knowing that my voice could matter and that rural people have something to say, and we matter, and okay, I can step up - kind of longwinded answer to your little question.
Torgerson: No, no, that's great. I've just loved learning more about the history of Northern Plains and I've been fortunate to visit the headquarters in Billings driving across the state to my family farm, but I love how they're bridging divides politically and geographically in the state. They're just such a great example, and I really hope to get more involved with them someday. I feel like they’re teaching people so much.
Alderson: And Megan, we need voices like yours. We need all types of practice and experience. That's the other thing Northern Plains does, it brings people together with different talents.
Torgerson: I love how some of the news pieces which Northern Plains also helped, you know, facilitate and get you featured in, they really have re-emphasized how family farms and ranches are important to our rural and our national economies. And so I was wondering if you could please paint a picture of rural America's broader importance, and on the other side of that coin, what the history of rural extraction has done to small towns like Birney, and farm families over the last 40 years.
Alderson: Yeah, thank you for that question. And I will just also reiterate that the national stories that have come out really have taken Northern Plains' great behind the scenes work. I'm going to give you a Wendell Berry quote, because a lot of times he says these things really well. But you ask - okay, why does this matter to all of us what's happening in rural in rural America - and Wendell Berry said, “by ruin of farmers and rural communities, by erosion, pollution and various kinds of industrial and urban development, we have ominously degraded and reduced the long term food producing capacity of our country.”
So I think sometimes it feels like oh, people are sad because it's this quaint - we're losing our farms and ranches. Isn't that sad? But they don't get it that it's more than just sad. It's our food and our food system and our ability to raise food and have it not just in the hands of a few giant corporations. So what does it mean when you when we talk about extracting wealth out of rural communities. It really is a kind of mining. And it's been happening. I mean, really, ranching in particular has always been hard. It was you know, the 1921 situation that led to the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. Things were hard, then I mean, my dad tells about my granddad saying, you know, one of the reasons we went into the guest ranching business in the in the ‘20s, was because a steer wouldn't pay its freight all the way to Omaha. So in some ways, this is an old problem, but it's actually gotten worse over the last 40 years. And what do I mean by extraction.
So basically, when you raise a product - say a valuable, great healthy beef calf, you know, it's a feeder calf - we're paid a small amount for that. In some cases, it costs more to raise these calves than what they can bring us. And then that calf goes to a small mid-sized feeder. And those feeders also, oftentimes are losing money, or barely staying in business. But yet, the feeder sells to these four giant packers. They're making a bunch of money on them. And that so that wealth isn't staying in these communities, it is being taken out. That product is great. But the money that that product should be raising isn't staying in rural in rural communities. And it used to be more than it is now.
So kind of what happened was in the '80s, with the whole deregulation that came as a part of the Reagan administration, it was this whole get big or get out [policy]. The Secretary of Agriculture at one point told [farmers and ranchers] straight out, get bigger or get out. So what happens was a lot of ranchers just couldn't get big. And so they've gone out of business, and the livestock industry has been kind of quietly dying. It isn't as drastic as some of the big losses of farm losses in the ‘80s, where farms were going under overnight. We've been selling off, leasing, moving to town, or people are having two or three jobs just to support their habit of ranching. Something like 40% of ranches in this country have gone out of business since the '80s. It's this huge, huge, huge number. And if you look at other livestock industries, the same kind of thing is happening.
And so if you consider some of the numbers because they paint a picture - and I got these from a really great kind of activist writer. He's been a feeder. He now has his own beef business. He's been a rancher: Mike Callicrate. He's really an interesting voice in this, but he brought some numbers that I'll quote here. So in 1970, the four company meat packer concentration was around 21%. That meant that 79% of the market was open and fair and competitive. And the producer – so the beef raiser, the cow calf producers like us – their share of the consumer beef dollar was around 70%. So we were getting 70%. Meat cutters were skilled and well paid. (And so you know, carcass beef instead of box beef, that was the standard.) So in October of 2021, the four company concentration of the market was 85% meaning that only 15% is open and transparent. The producer share of the consumer dollar has gone down to 37%. )So from 70 to 37%.) And then you combine that with some of the problems of like the drought, some of these out of control forest fires that have happened, and people's ability to stay in business: it's getting really, really pretty dire.
Torgerson: How long has it just been the big four? Like, it seems to me that just in the research I've done for the interviewer that this problem has just really been growing a lot in the last few years, but like also a slow grow since the ‘80s. And then of course, like the country of origin, labeling has a role too. So when did you start really, really feeling the pinch from the big four?
Alderson: You’re right, I think there's been all these mergers and that's also part of this deregulation allowing companies to kind of come together and these multinational companies. I'll give you an example of country of origin labeling, we had a brief period of time, where we actually had country of origin labeling on our beef, and I'll give you an example of just our ranch.
So in 2014, we received $2.52 a pound for our steer calves. And our heifer calves we got I think, 10 cents back, $2.40 a pound for heifer calves, and we sell a semi load of each of those. Country of Origin Labeling was repealed the next year. The next year, we got a full dollar a pound less. The price we got went to $1.50, not even 50 to like $1.50 a pound and the heifers were back like to $1.40. So that's a full dollar a pound. And the thing about ranching like that - a cow calf operation - we make all our money for the whole year, in one or two days. Our costs go on all year, but we have one big harvest. I mean, we may sell some dry cows or have some other small sales, but most of our money is made in that sale.
And you think of those trucks that hold 60,000 pounds, okay, you think of $1 a pound off of every calf. That's about $60,000 less for each truck. And you think of that for the entire State of Montana, all our truckloads of calves. It's just this tremendous amount of money. That's extraction of wealth. Some in the industry will say that, oh, that wasn't country of origin. But so clearly, the difference was so obvious. And I noticed it actually in our grass fed business, too.
And that's the other thing that I really want to talk about with country of origin labeling, where maybe I should first - do want me to speak a little bit about consumer labeling and why that matters?
Torgerson: Yes, please.
Alderson: So basically, right now, these four packers, they have what's called a captive supply. And they're also importing beef from Namibia, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, all through Central and South America. And we don't know about the environmental and health standards. We don't know any of that, really, but they're bringing in these cattle. They can raise their cattle much cheaper than we can. So a.) they're mixing our cattle in with theirs. So it's kind of degrading the beef that we have. But also, what happens is that when this beef and these cattle come into this country, all they have to be is processed here. That means either it can be an animal that's killed and processed (a carcass is processed), or it can simply be rewrapped or put in a different box, and in that instance, it gets a “product of the USA” label on it. So when you go to the grocery store, and you're a consumer, and you buy something, and you see that product of the USA, in most cases, it's a flat out lie. You have no idea where that comes from.
So we are missing out on people who would choose to buy beef born and raised in this country. And it gives the packers all this leverage to like, "oh, well, sorry, we're not going to - no, we're not going to buy from these feeders. We've got this other beef coming in," and they don't have to distinguish. And I mean, I'm sorry, you can buy a jug of nuts at Costco and it will say, this huge, long list of countries for each nut. I'm sorry, if they can figure out how to put a label on the nuts, they can figure out how to put a label on cattle and beef. Every other product that we have, except for beef and pork, has mandatory country of origin labeling. And the other thing that people don't realize is that 75% to 80% of the grass fed beef sold in this country is imported. And we're really leaving a lot of money on the table because these are people who are choosing a label. They're choosing to spend some more money to buy grass-fed beef. I mean, you know, Butcher Block where people think they're doing the right thing by getting their big box of grass fed beef, well, most of Butcher Block's beef is imported. And I'm not saying it's not perfectly good beef, but we don't get a shot at that market.
Torgerson: Yeah. It's just such a shame that it's just all profit driven. These big companies aren't considering the people at all. Where are the people in this and you brought up before just like how we need to reform big ag and like the big commercial cow-calf industry. It's not just about regenerative agricultural practices, but we need to reform the industry that you all are integrated in. So for people who might not see that connection, like how have you bridged that gap and argue that there needs to be reform in the meatpacking industry?
Alderson: Understanding that we all are going to have to work together for reform. You mention livestock market reform and people’s eyes glaze over and they think that, "oh that’s just a sad problem for a handful of ranchers and who really cares about them because it’s big ag anyway and big ag is causing all these problems. So let’s just get outside the system and let’s just buy local." Believe me I completely support and depend upon people buying local, but the story of what’s happened in the beef industry, the concentration of power and money and also political capture, it isn’t just a problem a few ranchers have. It’s the story of rural America and it’s the story of our democracy.
Even if you're not a rancher, this is your story, too. If you eat, if you buy groceries, if you care about animals, workers, land, soil, water or climate, if you're a small business owner, this is your struggle too. If you live where you don't have access to healthy, affordable food, this is your story. And if you're working to build a healthy local food system outside big corporate ag, this is especially your problem. Right now, these big four meat packers and other ag oligopolies, as someone said they've won the game of monopoly. And believe it or not, right now, there is no outside the system. Small businesses like our direct to consumer, Omega Beef, we're a piece of the answer, but we're not yet a realistic fix. And it's not a fix for all of us. We're not going to be able to build a local resilient food system until we get out from under the chokehold of these meat packers and other oligopolies. And there's so much money and power involved, that the solution isn't that hard. The hard part is gathering and holding the political will and courage to enforce laws, to add some policies that get competition back in our industry and fairness. Yeah.
Torgerson: So I'm wondering what lessons on resiliency from Northern Plains or your family do you hold close during these challenging times?
Alderson: So lessons from Northern Plains, I really love this question because it gets at what is most valuable about a group like Northern Plains. The lessons my parents and others taught us is that you can't fight these big fights on your own. You need to work with others, and you need others if you're going to take care of the places that you love.
The early founders of Northern Plains taught us to reach beyond our own comfort zones, to stick together to gather information and to work together. When you realize you're not alone, there's just so much possibility. You get things done, that you didn't think were possible. And you have some fun, you have this community. That's the thing, Northern Plains really became my family, in some ways, when my own community was in many ways torn apart. And my mom told me something that, you know, when they were facing these sort of massive plans for coal mining and power generation in our area, she started to look around at other areas where this was happening, or has happened, and it was clear to her and she said to me, that "wherever there's destruction of land, water, and air, there was destruction of human culture and individual human lives." Or she said, "maybe it was that where human beings were devalued environmental destruction happened." So we learned from Northern Plains, that we didn't have to stand for this. We learned that our land, and water and communities matter and so did our voices. We learned that by speaking up, we could make a difference.
Reaching out, speaking up, they're not easy things to do, especially when you come - well, you know, this - when you come from a rural place where really the teaching is, if you don't have something nice to say, don't say it at all. But when you care about these issues, and you meet others who are interested and who value, your life's work, your life's purpose, what you're doing, and the places that you come from. I mean... sometimes we've gotten to this place where we care about the places, but not the peoples. There are special places that we’ll work to protect, but these working landscapes who's standing up for them, you know? And I think that's this thing that I love about what you're doing with Reframing Rural, and the work of Northern Plains is no - land, air, water, people, animals, cultures, the well-being and the health and the viability and the strength of all of these - they go together. You degrade one of these and you're tearing apart the whole thing.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you to Jeanie Alderson, Dustin Ogdin and Clare Overholt for making this episode happen. Visit Jeanie’s episode page at reframingrural.org to find numerous articles and resources mentioned in this episode including a Northern Plains Resource Council webpage where you can add your name to their letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking him to restore fairness, transparency and competition to cattle markets during this rulemaking period.
Next month I will share a conversation with Randi Lynn Tanglen, a fellow native of Northeast Montana with a PhD in American Literature who was a professor of English in a small Texas town for 12 years before becoming the executive director of Humanities Montana.
I produced and co-edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Cheyenne and Apsaalooke lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. The chief editor of this episode was Rob Upchurch. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!