Where's the Beef With Blockchain? Wyoming

Where's the Beef With Blockchain? Wyoming

On a ranch in northern Wyoming, not far from the Belle Fourche River, a few hundred calves are making history. They are being tagged, castrated and branded with irons, as is normal, a couple of months after birth. But what is new is that their IDs are now logged on a blockchain: part of a push by America’s least populated and most minerals-dependent state to position itself at the front of the “crypto” revolution.

According to Campstool Ranch owner Ogden Driskill, blockchain technology can help capture and preserve value along every step of the supply chain. He says that if he can prove to the ultimate buyer that these are open-range cattle, reared on sunshine and grass in cowboy country — rather than a cramped pen — he can get a premium of up to $700 per head, or almost 30 percent.

“We always had a superior product, but it would always get blended in, like if you sold Volkswagens with Cadillacs and Mercedes,” says the beef rancher, 59, who was elected as a Republican member of the Wyoming Senate seven years ago. “This gives us a chance for our quality to stand on its own.”

Other U.S. states have big ideas for blockchain, the digital ledger technology that underpins bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and which has been tipped to transform sectors such as shipping, logistics and finance. But only Wyoming has passed legislation to create a framework for blockchain and crypto businesses, giving it a head start on would-be rivals such as Arizona, Michigan and North Dakota.

You’ve heard of craft beer. This is craft beef.

Rob Jennings, BeefChain CEO

About 200 new companies have sprung up in Wyoming over the past few months, according to state records, with names like Bison Crypto Power and Something Something Blockchain.

Matt Mead, the state’s Republican governor, says technology could become a vital “fourth leg” of Wyoming’s economy, behind energy, tourism and agriculture, helping revive one of the handful of U.S. states that still has not regained its pre–financial crisis level of output. Others dream of creating some kind of hipster enclave within the deep-red state, just as Austin has lured Apple, Alphabet and Amazon, among others, to the middle of Texas.

But there is some nervousness about the headlong plunge into crypto. Marian Orr, mayor of Cheyenne, the state capital, says she worries about an invasion of bitcoin miners sucking the electricity grid dry of cheap power and then heading off without paying their bills. Others fret about rampant fraud in the market for the sale of so-called utility tokens, which act like prepaid software licenses, allowing the owner to use a blockchain-embedded product or service in the state.

“It can be hard to tell the ‘black hats’ from the ‘white hats,’” says Sarah Reese, manager of economic and community initiatives in Laramie, a university town 50 minutes west of Cheyenne, alluding to the old Western films where the bad guys dress in black. “We don’t want to sell our communities down the river. The problem is, there are all kinds of shades of gray.”

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Unlike a lump of coal or a barrel of oil, a blockchain can be hard to visualize. It is in essence an online database: a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are secured by cryptography and validated by several different computers in constant communication with one another.

The key point, say enthusiasts, is to enable the transparent sharing of data, in order to process transactions among multiple parties that may not know or trust one another. Hence the appeal in financial services, where dozens of big banks are looking into applications in areas such as internal payments, trade finance or the syndication of loans. Or in retail, where Walmart — in collaboration with IBM — has roped in Dole, Unilever and Nestlé to try to improve the traceability of basic foods such as bananas, chicken and chocolate.

What blockchain offers is certainty of identification, says Rob Jennings, the fast-talking chief executive of BeefChain, the startup that was tagging cows at Driskill’s 10,000-acre ranch. A former radio host and events promoter, hiring the likes of Jay-Z and Kid Rock for political conventions, he is a founding member of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition, a group of lawyers, accountants and former Wall Street types, many of them — like Jennings — born or raised in the state.

At the moment, he says, tracking a cow from pasture to plate tends to be a paper-intensive business, full of opportunities for error as herds are traded back and forth to munch down crops or to fatten up in feedlots. Somewhere along the way, the value gets lost. “You’ve heard of craft beer,” Jennings says. “This is craft beef.”

Tyler Lindholm, a 35-year-old rancher who has served in the state’s House of Representatives for the past three years, helped craft a package of bills passed in March. One recognizes tokens issued in initial coin offerings as distinct from money and securities, while another frees cryptocurrencies from taxation. Cryptocurrencies are now also exempt from state laws on money transmission, and corporate records, filings and votes are allowed to be recorded and stored on a blockchain.

Lindholm, a Republican with a strong libertarian streak, says he wants to use bills like this as a way to get revenge on Delaware. Wyoming invented the limited liability company structure in 1977, but Delaware industrialized it in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming the destination of choice for company owners wanting to maximize business profits while shielding personal assets from creditors. Company registration fees alone are expected to net the East Coast state close to $1 billion this year, or about one-quarter of its budget.

Wyoming should appeal to any cryptocurrency startup, says Peter Hatzipetros, a New York–based lawyer, because of its cheap rents and cheap power. It is also one of a handful of states with zero individual income tax and one of two (along with South Dakota) without any taxes on corporate profits or revenues.

Tax is not the big clincher, Hatzipetros says: If people really wanted to avoid it they would go to Puerto Rico, where there is no federal income tax either. But in terms of laying the crypto groundwork, Wyoming is “well ahead of the game,” he says, drawing parallels to Nevada in gaming and Colorado in legalized cannabis.

“We’re hungry, we’re on the hunt,” says Lindholm. “If you look at the landscape of crypto and blockchain, these folks are just really trying to find a place they can conduct their business in a legal manner.”

***

Wyoming has tried to diversify its economy before. In the 1960s it was Mead’s grandfather, Gov. Clifford Hansen, who considered moves into the production of cement, beer and Barbie dolls before deciding to build a lot of highways and reservoirs.

Today, though, the state remains more dependent on mining and drilling than any other in the U.S. Wyoming is the nation’s top producer of coal and uranium, No. 6 in natural gas and No. 8 in oil. Roughly half of the state’s $2.5 billion in annual revenue, excluding investment income, comes from taxes on natural resources.

So when commodities get hit, so does Wyoming. Department of Labor statistics show that no other state suffered as much, in terms of declines in payrolls, after the Great Recession. Today the state’s total labor force of just over 290,000 — down about 6 percent since 2012 — seems especially feeble alongside Colorado to the south, up 11 percent over the same period to 3.1 million, or even Montana to the north, up 4 percent to 525,000.

Too many graduates leave and never come back, scattering to the coasts or to big cities nearby like Denver or Boise, Idaho, says Fred Schmechel, assistant director at the University of Wyoming. “We want a Wyoming solution to the Wyoming problem,” he says. “So far it’s all spitballing; nothing has stuck.”

Kip DeCastro, a graduate from the central Wyoming town of Casper who works with BeefChain, says it can be tempting for young people to look for jobs in energy, where high school leavers can start on $80,000 a year. He did it himself as an undergraduate, earning $24 an hour on fiberglass crews, hauling pipes from one site to another or, if he was lucky, welding steel at a gas plant.

“I don’t see crypto as the thing we should tie ourselves to completely, but I see it as a good jumping-off point,” DeCastro says. “The [energy] booms are great, but the busts [are] really terrible.”

***

It is still early days for Wyoming and crypto. Cheyenne Leads, a local development agency, is offering cheap land, fee waivers and all the connections would-be applicants can handle. But despite the flurry of company registrations no one appears to have moved into prime office space like the Grier Building in downtown Cheyenne, a former cattle-baron hangout just across the street from the Historic Plains Hotel.

And some fear the big legislative effort will not result in much of a boost to output. Erik Voorhees, a Colorado native now running ShapeShift, a digital asset exchange based in Switzerland, says crypto businesses may struggle to find enough good people in Wyoming — population 579,315, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate, about the same as the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico — despite “the best legislation any state has passed, ever.”

But many argue that the state has nothing to lose. Even if skeptics do not think that tomorrow’s financial system will be built on blockchains and digital assets, they say it makes sense to move in that direction. Passing bills costs almost nothing, says Orr, Cheyenne’s mayor, and there is no great investment required in infrastructure or buildings or people.

“You’ve got minimal downside and huge potential upside — the kind of bet I like to take all day long,” says Apneet Jolly, co-founder of Crypto Lotus, a San Francisco–based hedge fund. He says he is thinking about opening up a security consulting business on the side, and basing it in Wyoming.

Also considering a permanent shift is Tony Rose, a West Coast entrepreneur who is chief technology officer at BeefChain. He says he is tired of seeing crypto businesses spring up in friendly jurisdictions such as Malta or Singapore or Estonia.

On that hot day in May at the Campstool Ranch, Rose wrestled dozens of calves himself, wearing leather boots he had bought for the occasion. One day he might swap his baseball cap for a Stetson. For now, though, he says, “I’m just a tech guy from Silicon Valley, learning how to be a cowboy.”

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By Ben McLannahan

OZY partners with the U.K.’s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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