Here's the beef: Fort Pierre packing plant to reopen

Stephen Lee
Capital Journal

Kim Ulmer signed loan papers at Dakota Prairie Bank in Fort Pierre on May 1 and then went down the street a couple blocks to the Bad River Pack building that he and 13 others as U.S. Beef Producers are reopening as a packing plant to add value to locally grown cattle.

Ulmer owns Huron (S.D.) Continental Marketing, that includes a livestock auction ring and a feedlot and he buys cattle across the region.

But this new vision of providing a small but local market for cattle producers to send their beeves to be readied for the table is taking up Ulmer’s time right now.

Recently, he killed a baker’s dozen of steers he bought at Fort Pierre Livestock Auction just a block away across the railroad tracks.

On May 1, he had several massive carcasses hanging in a cooler, harvested from 1,450-pound Angus steers killed that week, owned by Joe Reints, executive director of U.S. Beef Producers.

With meat plants across the nation closing because of COVID-19 concerns, this opening of a long-closed one seems like good timing. But it was planned long before the pandemic hit.

Ulmer and his investors bought the Bad River Pack plant from Don and Mary Ward, who owned and ran the Corner Grocery in Pierre and bought Bad River Pack in 1990. They used the beef they processed in Fort Pierre to sell at the Corner Grocery, which they sold in the late 1990s. The Wards in recent years have bought wholesale beef and continued to process it, selling their jerky, pemmican and summer sausage at farmer’s markets and street shows in Arizona and in Fort Pierre and Pierre.

John Tipps Hamilton, a two-term mayor of Fort Pierre in the late 1970s and early 1980s, built the concrete slab building in 1976 for his Cedar Breaks Beef Co. processing plant that became Bad River Pack. The thick cedar planks still can be seen in the winding staircase inside.

“Hamilton built it for his registered Limousin cattle,” Don Ward said. “He was a little before his time.”

Hamilton, an entrepreneur and cowman, died in 2008 in Arizona. He was locally famous for joining U.S. Congressman Clint Roberts and a few others in November 1980 in riding horses up the steps into the Capitol Rotunda to bust up Pierre’s centennial ball, then retiring to the cozy reaches of the Longbranch downtown, still on horseback. The building is much as Hamilton left it.

Don Ward spent time on May 1 showing Ulmer the multitude of drains throughout the plant, from the kill floor to the processing table and how important it was to keep them clear for federal inspectors.

Ulmer said a key moment for this new incarnation of the 45-year-old plant was when the U.S. Beef Producers received a $100,000 loan at 3% interest from the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development, or GOED.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration “is really working hard to help cattle producers,” he said. “They came to us and really pitched in and were really helpful.”

Dave Bonde of the Fort Pierre Development Corp. worked with Kyle Peters of the state GOED, who made a presentation in January at the Development Corp.’s annual meeting in Fort Pierre.

All that state and local government support made it easier for Dakota Prairie Bank to provide a loan, Ulmer said.

Steve Kost, senior vice president at the bank, said. “We are really excited about the plant. There is a real void of plants offering custom slaughter for their own beef.”

That kind of backing is rare, Ulmer said.

“We had zero accounts. No business to take over, there were 10 years here with no accounts. All we had was the real estate. So they took a chance.”

He said the 14 U.S. Beef Producers investors are putting up half of the financing, and Dakota Prairie Bank and the state GOED are providing half.

Some of it is sweat equity of a kind.

“Joe Reints painted the ceiling in here,” Ulmer said while standing in the lobby.

Reints is manager of a crop insurance agency in eastern South Dakota, is executive director of U.S. Beef Producers.

Reints was struck as he sold crop insurance to producers who could get no similar protection for raising cattle, Ulmer said.

As with many in the South Dakota cattle business, Ulmer sees a problem in four large packing companies controlling 85% of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S.

Ulmer’s wife, Jackie, and family friends Cole and Matthew Mitzel, high school students out of school in Aberdeen, were working on May 1 with him at the plant.

Ulmer said he’s known his fellow investors, some from Minnesota and North Dakota, for years through his work “order buying” cattle across the region.

The idea is to gain more direct access to the meat marketing chain for family farms.

Highlighting the U.S. origin of the cattle and the beef they put on is part of the idea, according to Ulmer.

Not only is there a virtual monopoly set up with a few giant companies doing nearly all the meat production in the country, a lot of it originates in Brazil or other countries, Ulmer and others have said.

That meat can be repackaged as a U.S. product for sale here, according to a U.S. Beef Producers in a brochure Ulmer hands out.

That is unfair competition which is hurting the American cattle producer, he said. At the same time, American consumers may believe they are buying American-raised beef that actually came from another country.

In the past five years, retail prices paid by consumers for beef have remained stable at around $6 a pound, but cattle producers are getting $500 less per head, U.S. Beef Producers maintain.

Being smaller will allow the Fort Pierre packing plant to provide better quality beef more efficiently, he said.

That will allow U.S. Beef Producers to sell beef at about $5 a pound, well under the national retail average of $6 a pound, according to their promotional materials.

The beef’s origin also will be labeled clearly, he said, pointing out the sly logo “Certified COOL,” with a black steer wearing American flag shades. COOL stands for Country Of Origin Labeling, a cause Ulmer and many cattle producers are pushing to reinstate in U.S. trade policy.

One of the main selling points is: “U.S. Beef Producers is owned by cattlemen!”

“We have local people doing maintenance,” he said.

The plant will have five or six employees to start and increase to seven or eight, Ulmer said.

For now, the plant only can kill beef for a private party to use.

These beeves that are hanging in the cooler now came from Joe Reints’ Angus steers and they are for his personal consumption, Ulmer said.

As soon as the plant gets a meat inspector approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, employees can begin killing and selling beef to the grocery stores for the retail customers.

It’s largely retired or veteran veterinarians who can do the work of a USDA meat inspector, Ulmer said.

Ulmer said by June, he hopes to be turning out USDA-inspected beef that can be found on grocery shelves.