Years in the making, North Platte’s rancher-led meat plant works toward opening
By Elizabeth Rembert , Food, Energy and Agriculture Reporter Nebraska Public Media, Harvest Public Media
June 29, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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A crane looms above a dusty field just outside of North Platte, where trucks loaded with dirt criss-cross the busy site and workers set up a foundation. Two years ago, an old sewer lagoon took up this stretch of land. Cattails and marshy soil made the field a swampy mess.
Today, it’s the future site of Sustainable Beef, a meatpacking plant that Nebraska ranchers and cattle feeders began organizing in 2020.
It took 18 months, 18 public hearings and seven different public agencies for the idea of a rancher-owned plant to get government approval. With paperwork secured, the physical work has begun.
“We’re making great progress and it’s encouraging to see,” Sustainable Beef CEO David Briggs said. “Still, it’s a daunting task and there’s so much work to do before we process our first animal.”
Briggs said he expects the facility to be up and running in 2025. When the plant is fully operational, it will process around 1,500 cattle a day. That’s roughly 1.5% of the nation’s capacity, according to Briggs.
“Our mission was not to just be a local or to take care of one community,” he said. “It was to help with the national security concept, and actually be a player in the overall industry.”
It’s an industry that has become increasingly challenging for Nebraskans in the cattle business, as processing companies like Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef have gotten bigger. Today, four companies control around 85% of the beef market.
That’s left fewer buyers and forced ranchers to take lower prices when they sell their animals to be turned into steaks, even as grocery shoppers pay more for those cuts.
The packers have been hanging onto large profits. But this group of Nebraska ranchers and feeders want another option. Modeled after a co-op business, they are establishing their own plant where they can process their own animals.
Keeping money in cattle country
Sustainable Beef represents a bid at stopping the flow of money toward corporate bank accounts, instead putting it in local cattlemen’s pockets, like board member and founder Trey Wasserburger.
Wasserburger works alongside his father-in-law Kirk Olson at Olson Farms, a feed yard near Hershey. He looks out over one of the feedlot’s pens, where cattle crowd close to the edges to push their heads through a fence and get to the golden grains in a feed trough.
“These will probably be ready to go here in the next 30 or 40 days,” Wasserburger said. “They'll go to a large packer and they'll be in the beef supply chain in 60 days, probably.”
It takes three years of hard work to even get the cattle to this point, he said. Now they need twice-daily feedings, regular cleaning and constant health checks.
Cassie Lapaseotes – another Sustainable Beef board member and founder – runs a feed yard with her family near Bridgeport. She said it’s sort of like a hotel model.
“Before you go to a hotel, you want clean sheets and everything ready for you to come in,” Lapaseotes said. “When these cattle come into a feed yard, we want their pens to be clean, their water tanks to be clean, the feed to be freshly laid out in front of them.”
Wasserburger and Lapaseotes are proud of how they take care of their animals to bring quality meat to the market.
But when the processors buy their cattle, they basically get a predetermined rate that’s based on the price of animals of a much lower quality than what they’re raising.
“It would be like comparing an Audi and a Kia. And the Kia sets the price for the Audi,” Wasserburger said. “It’s a broken system, totally.”
Right now their paychecks don’t reflect the sweat, science and money they’ve invested in their cattle. They hope Sustainable Beef can fix that and provide a new option for ranchers and feeders, a long way into the future.
“The way we look at it is very much ensuring a place for our next generation to have a home to sell their cattle,” Lapaseotes said. “I’m the fourth-generation on my family’s operation, so I’m looking forward to the next 20 years so the next wave has opportunities.”
Boost from Walmart
Walmart Inc. has stepped up to be among the company’s first customers. The retailer has invested in the project and agreed to buy and distribute the majority of Sustainable Beef’s product.
To Briggs, the partnership is what could set the company apart from other collapsed meatpacking projects.
“This is how a lot of things get in trouble, in my opinion. They have this grand idea. And they're good ideas,” he said. “They got good support from the producer, and they build a plant, but then what do you do with all the beef?”
Even with a boost from the nation’s largest grocery chain by market share, Wasserburger says they’re not trying to compete with the giant packers.
“That’s like comparing the Yankees to my son's T-ball team,” he said. “We don't want to be the Yankees and we're not pretending like we are. This model works for us and our families and so we're going to play ball like we know.”
If their model works, it could mean big things for the city of North Platte, which has been steadily shrinking since 1980. It’s estimated the plant will bring more than $1 billion dollars to town, and support nearly 2,000 jobs.
The city has a “beating train coming right at us,” said North Platte Area Chamber & Development president and CEO Gary Person. “We know we better buckle up and get stuff done.”
In the past three years, the city has added three multi-unit complexes, with two other developments underway now. Another three projects are going through the approval process now.
Person said the spaces are snapped up as soon as they are available, in a tight market that’s averaged 25 to 40 available houses in recent months.
“Every time we go to the city council, I say ‘You all voted to get the jobs here, you owe it to those potential workers, to that employer that you're going to do something about housing and fix this situation,’” Person said.
It’s not just development the town needs, he said. The community also has to be willing to accept a new, diverse workforce.
“It’s an exciting time to be in North Platte,” Person said. “But its total success is going to be most dependent now on how it embraces being this welcoming community for the new labor force that's coming in and on housing.”
Person said the town will follow the example of the ranchers, “the North Platte, cowboy way by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and getting it done.”