When the pandemic hit Montana in spring 2020, many businesses closed, workers were furloughed and commerce slowed to a crawl. Something happened in America that hadn’t happened in almost 100 years; store shelves had empty sections. Everyone knows paper products vanished overnight, but more concerning was a paltry supply of produce and meat. Packing plants were closing due to the virus, creating a bottleneck in the supply chain. Farmers and ranchers had no shortage of animals to be processed and grocery stores had ample case space, but with the plants closed or operating at a reduced capacity, meat became difficult to find and what was available sported a high price tag.
Then something curious happened. For years there have been many campaigns to “know your farmer” and “know where your food comes from.” Even though small meat processors have been around for decades, when COVID-19 hit, consumers and ranchers started looking at processing/purchasing meat closer to home. What became especially interesting was a recent changeover of these small plants to young people who see the small packing business not only as a fulfilling career but as a way to revitalize small communities. In fact, in July 2020, four Montana meat processing facilities changed ownership in Billings, Forsyth, Terry and Manhattan.
Stop by Cowboy Meats in Forsyth and you’ll find red-haired Charlie Hollenbeck bustling around his small, newly acquired packing plant. Whether he’s visiting with a customer in the retail store, discussing
pork cuts with an employee or working on the computer, the 30-year-old business owner has boundless energy. When the pandemic hit, Charlie Hollenbeck was in Sheridan, Wyoming working for JH Oilfield as a construction manager. The enterprising young rancher had been considering getting into the meat packing industry. He had been raised on a ranch in Molt, MT; then earned a degree in process plant technology from Montana State University, Billings and worked toward a degree in animal science and ag business from the University of Wyoming. After college, a stint in the then-booming oilfield in North Dakota allowed him to earn the money to buy a farm in Molt and market beef while he worked for an oil company in Billings. Then an opportunity to use his knowhow in marketing and technology led him to Watford City. Following that move, Hollenbeck and his wife moved to Sheridan, Wyoming where he joined a construction business in late 2019.
“When COVID affected that business, I closed it and decided to purchase the C&K Meats in Forsyth. This plan had actually been on the back burner for about two years,” Hollenbeck explained. “The seed
was planted one day when I had a beef processed at C&K and started talking to the owners Kurt and Carla Gambill, who were planning to retire. I mentioned I’d be interested in becoming involved in beef
processing. Closing my business due to COVID was my opportunity to make the timely purchase of this facility. We knew with COVID there was a need and we saw producers hurting. We had the right
resources with enough capital to invest and the manpower and energy to run the plant.”
Hollenbeck pointed out that although certain businesses saw hard times as the pandemic dragged on, business in small meat processing facilities was skyrocketing. The young entrepreneur bought the plant
with the idea of not only continuing to custom process for area ranchers, but servicing institutions like prisons and schools. Currently, Cowboy Meats sends meat to schools in Hysham and Melstone
and are working to get meat into Forsyth schools, as well. “Local producers have been very generous donating meat for this effort,” Hollenbeck noted.

Cowboy Meats, which sits on Front Street in Forsyth, has an attractive retail area and although they still need to buy some boxed beef to fill the niches for retail, they plan to buy their meat from local producers.
“Our custom meat customers are what keep the lights on in the place. Part of our mission is to have an outlet for farmers and ranchers as a place to process and market their animals,” Hollenbeck said.
“We have a meat depot license plus a custom-exempt license and on September 18 they became state inspected so they could retail local cattle.”
Hollenbeck believes livestock producers need to look toward more value-added products—Montana producers send 500,000 head of dry cows each year to get processed out of state, then pay for the
freight to bring the meat back on a devalued product. “We take a haircut headed down and pay a premium coming back. I’d like to see Cowboy Meats start filling that gap. At least we can lead the way.”
Their cooler capacity currently is 30 head and they are building a new carcass cooler to hold an additional 60 carcasses. Cowboy Meats processes beef and hogs, as well as lamb. There are 14 employees on the payroll, with a mix of different skills.
“Some are experienced cutters, some are in training; there is a lot of young talent here,” Hollenbeck said. “The CEO in me says whatever credit you receive, the team deserves it. If they walked out,
we wouldn’t have a plant. It’s great having a young workforce because they are so eager to try new things.”
While giving credit, he also praises the Gambills, who did an amazing job with the place, for making a seamless transition in owners.
Small towns appeal to the Hollenbecks. “A small town breeds opportunity. There are economic opportunities, lower costs of living and lower cost to start-ups in areas with lighter population footprint,” Hollenbeck said. “These reasons should be driving us to these areas, especially now with so much ability for remote working. We’ve had an easy entry into Forsyth and there is a real sense of
community here.”
Hollenbeck praises his experience in Montana Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers with his success today. “I was in the Final Four of the YF&R Discussion Meet in 2016. That’s when Gil Gasper,
who owns a small meat processing facility in Circle, won the competition and took home a Polaris Ranger. Being involved in YF&R really expanded my circle, and those contacts have proved invaluable. I’m now serving some of those friends I made.”
Hollenbeck encourages booking livestock processing far in advance. “Ranchers need to make their local packing plant part of their marketing plan. Do they want to market grass fed, dry cows or fat steers?
We want them to be in control of their future so the next time something like COVID hits, you already have your space reserved here and you can use the plant as part of your overall business plan.”
He sees the small packing house business as a great bridge between the producer and the consumer. “I have great joy selling consumers beef, and having consumers buying local beef has been great for the ranchers. It’s a hard business but with the right leadership and mentality, it’s an industry that can really grow and offer stable infrastructure.”