The cattleman running a western Minnesota feedlot transferred the reins of the family beef business to his college-aged daughter to shield the indebted operation from creditors, according to a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year.

Now, after months of legal wrangling — and a failure to hire an attorney to represent his company — a federal court in St. Paul is primed to deliver a default judgment against the cattle company that traces its roots back to the 1860s. Such a ruling would add to a cluster of issues facing the feedlot.

Not too long ago, Thomas Revier, a cattle seller from Renville County, sat atop Minnesota's beef world. A 2020 profile by the Star Tribune referred to Revier's operation as the state's largest, with a feedlot in Olivia swelling to over 10,000 animals and a direct-to-restaurant and grocery store boxed-beef operation spanning nearly two dozen states.

The company's hamburgers and ground beef landed in Shake Shack, Cub Foods and local lockers.

But emerging from the pandemic, Revier owed Omaha-based Producers Livestock Credit Corp. some $4 million in loans.

In January and February of 2021, court records say Revier's company sold over 3,000 head of cattle to another entity run by Thomas Revier. The sale led to Revier paying down $1.5 million he owed Producers Livestock.

But by year's end, Revier turned over the family business, now under a different name, to his daughter, Moira Revier, the lawsuit says.

Moira was a "full-time college student in Moorhead" when her company took over the farm, according to the complaint. She was the sixth generation of Reviers at the helm of a cattle company.

Attorneys for the Omaha lender described the cattle business as the same one Moira Revier's father had run but "under the disguise of a new name."

In a court filing, Moira Revier's attorney disputed the allegation that she was a company figurehead and wrote the feedlot was not "essentially the same" as her father's.

Decade of debt

Nevertheless, debts for the family mounted. Court records reveal a debt-laden feedlot operating in Olivia for years, with the Revier family failing to pay on loans dating to at least 2010.

In the fall of 2022, Thomas Revier's brother declared bankruptcy after failing to pay back millions to creditors.

By this January, the Omaha firm sued again in federal court, this time alleging a wide-ranging scheme involving Revier's daughter and a Fargo-based firm, BRR Properties, that had purchased the Revier feedlot and adjacent farmland through an auction by the Renville County sheriff.

On Tuesday, after Thomas Revier's company failed to hire an attorney to defend itself in court over several months, the plaintiffs moved for default judgment against Revier Cattle Co. If a judge agrees, it would grant Producers Livestock a win in the case.

Attorneys for BRR Properties had filed a motion to dismiss these claims, saying the Omaha group's lawsuit is evidence of a frustrated "junior creditor" and that the Fargo firm has a right to "stave off foreclosure." But on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled the lawsuit could proceed.

The Star Tribune spoke to a receptionist for Revier Cattle Co. on Tuesday, who provided Thomas Revier's email. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Inflation to blame?

It's not clear from the court record what led to the decline in the Minnesota-leading beef operation. In a 2020 article from the Land, a rural-life publication, Revier described his branded-beef model as a strategy to beat back the nation's "Big Four" packers like Cargill, who control over 80% of the nation's beef supply.

"Guess I'm like a cat on a hot tin roof," Revier said. "Yes, I'm thankful for what we've got going. The good Lord asks us to be sharing people. When I see more and more beef people picking up on branded beef that will be my satisfaction."

The price of beef has shot up in recent years amid widespread inflation. The average price of a pound of ground beef has been over $5 since last summer, up more than 25% since the beginning of the pandemic.

Revier's business model was built on consumers willing to pay higher prices for their meat.

"People want to know where their food comes from," Revier told the Star Tribune in 2020.

Minnesota is not a nation-leading beef cattle state and is better known for its dairy operations. But the state's beef products industry generates more than $2 billion in sales, according to a 2022 University of Minnesota Extension report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used a photograph of a property unrelated to the lawsuit.