For Mike Callicrate, an outspoken critic of the "beef cartel" and big believer in building a strong, sustainability-minded regional food system, School District 11's move away from Ranch Foods Direct products is all too familiar. Inside of the last year, he says, he's lost business from Greeley, Falcon and Boulder school districts, due to the same kind of financial squeezes. Altogether, he projects losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million in revenue from lost school contracts in 2015. It's a figure that includes the loss of steak-cut sales, which must balance with his ground beef sales in order to move a whole animal through his production line.
"If you don't have ground beef business, you can't be in the meat business," he says, noting that he's cut four RFD jobs already. "This is a very ugly marketplace, dominated by just a handful of big companies, and they are brutal and ruthless. ... We're really screwed. You can't shift it this fast."
Callicrate says he was shocked to see the U.S. government step in last week and sue to block a merger between the country's two largest food providers, US Foods and Sysco. But it's not a game-changing victory. Even in today's market, he often can't compete with big companies that undercut what he calls his best, barely-break-even price by 25 percent — not when they import inexpensive beef while the overall U.S. herd continues to decline in population and rise in price.
"They're able to dollar-cost-average the meat they sell ... and totally wipe us out of the market. What the heck happened to farm-to-school? To our commitment to feed our kids better and support local economies and ranchers and farmers?" he asks. "The USDA fails to fund these programs they come up with. ... And you know damn well these big industries have major lobbying power. ...
"But hey, it's back to performance-enhancing drugs, and pink slime is fully back" — at least in the wider marketplace, if not D-11, for now.