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Consumers worried about food shortages during the pandemic are filling their freezers with meat, creating opportunity as well as issues for small-scale livestock producers. Photo by Rachel Henderson

Processors, farmers struggle with pandemic-fueled demand for locally raised meat

By Rachel Henderson

Jake Sailer had never seen anything like what happened this spring. Sailer, who owns an independent meat processing facility near Spring Valley, Wisconsin, was blown away by the sudden demand for local meat when COVID-19 started to force businesses to close and people to stay home. Many people, worried about the future, wanted to fill their freezers with locally raised meat. As with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the run on meat spiraled into a panic.

Then, “the virus got into bigger packing plants, which shut them down, which put the stress on the farmers,” Sailer explained. “Small processors stepped up to the plate.” He personally worked with a local farmer to help him sell 400 hogs in 11 days. But that resulted in a processing backlog. His facility, and many like it, lacked any extra capacity to take on these new customers and soon had a long waiting list.

That story played out all over the country. In states where small farms make up a large portion of the rural economy—states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania—meat processors struggled to safely meet that demand. When I spoke to Sailer in August, he was just starting to get caught up but said he expects another big run this fall, the season when many small-scale farmers bring in their animals.

While this year has been extreme for meat processors across the country, it could also be seen as a heightened scenario of a growing trend. As the local food movement grows, consumers want to know where their meat comes from. They want to know their farmers and support a style of farming that matches their values. They want animals that have been raised on pasture, basked in sunshine, rooted under trees, had space to run, and ended their lives with just one bad day.

For their part, many direct market farmers— myself included—are happy to meet that demand and those expectations. The values that consumers hold dear are consistent with our values. We want to see animals on the landscape living their best lives. We want to improve animal health and keep feed costs low by providing access to pasture and forage. And, we want to be able to sell the meat at the end of the season to someone who appreciates the work we and the animals have put in. Something has to happen first, though, and that’s where meat processors like Sailer’s come in.

Farmers who are selling directly to consumers have a couple of paths open to them. Some choose to sell whole, half, or quarter animals to a customer. That customer can then place a specific order for processing. After paying the farmer for the animal, they then pay the meat processor for the cutting, curing, and packaging. Other farmers opt to have all of the processing done, and sell cuts of packaged meat. Depending on the sales venue, that may require a retail food license, additional packaging and labeling requirements, and/or freezer and refrigeration inspections.

Wisconsin actually has a very high number of meat processors per capita compared to other states with large agriculture sectors. However, many of them are custom processors, exempt from inspections, that cater directly to hunters bringing in game. There are, additionally, many licensed meat processors who specialize in butchery, charcuterie, and retail sales, and many of those forgo their own slaughtering facilities. Farmers who want to work with those operations still need to find a place to have their animals slaughtered. Most of that happens at state-inspected or USDA inspected facilities like Sailer’s. Those businesses have become more and more overwhelmed as small farms increase their production and sales of meat.

As consumers stockpile meat, calling farms in search of a meat supply and adding their names to producers’ waiting lists, many farmers are wondering if they should ramp up production. But for farmers to increase production to meet that demand, they need to be assured of having access to processing.

Legislation

There have been a few attempts to create legislation that would help ease the burden of processing regulations. The Cooperative Interstate Shipment program (CIS), authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill and launched by USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service in 2012, allows state-inspected meats from qualifying plants to be shipped across state lines. In this pandemic year, the program added three facilities in Indiana, six in Iowa, and seven in Ohio; Wisconsin already had 18 processing facilities in the program. (See a list of all CIS processors at bit.ly/CISprocessors.)

In addition to that program, a couple of proposed legislative acts, the PRIME Act and the DIRECT act, would help producers reach a larger market with their meat. The PRIME Act would allow farmers to take their animals to custom slaughterhouses and then sell the meat within their state, either direct to consumer or to restaurants and retailers who in turn sell direct to consumer.

For many small farmers, the closest urban area or the best farmers market may be in another state. It may seem like a lucrative market is at their fingertips, but they first need to drive several hours to access a USDA-inspected facility, then make another round trip to pick up the meat, all to be able to sell it at a market that may be relatively close by. The regulation being proposed by the PRIME Act would help solve this problem.

The DIRECT Act would amend retail exemptions under current law to allow meat processed under state inspected establishments to be sold online to buyers across state lines.

What neither of these acts do is create additional infrastructure. In fact, some producers worry that they could create more of a backlog on our state-inspected processors.

Mobile slaughter units seem to many to be part of the solution. A self-contained slaughter facility can travel from site to site and are subject to the same inspections as a “fixed” slaughter facility; there are currently only nine of these that are USDA-inspected. Many more operate within states, though state departments of agriculture in some cases impose more strict limitations on mobile units than on fixed facilities. In Wisconsin, for example, meat processed at mobile units can’t be sold as cuts or packages, but must be sold as whole animals. This limits flexibility in sales. Still, producers are hopeful about the future of mobile slaughter. The investment to start a new processing facility is enormous, and while mobile facilities involve many of the same costs, they avoid the obvious overhead of a permanent building.

Issues for Processors

Jake Sailer is the fifth generation of his family to run Sailer’s Meats, helping to grow the from a meat market and grocery store into a full-service meat locker. In 2006, Sailer oversaw the construction and opening of the current facility, complete with a retail storefront.

“When we built our facility in 2006, I knew that we could make this go,” Sailer said. He was confident in the viability of the business, and that he could see a quick return on investment of that expanded space and additional coolers. Seeing the increased demand, and with that facility running constantly at its maximum capacity, Sailer purchased a building to embark on another expansion earlier this year. “And, everything has gone off track since then,” he added, referring to the pandemic and continued uncertainty several months in. In contrast to 2006, when he was completely sure his business could sustain the needed growth, in this case there is more risk.

“Plant manager, retail manager, hiring all these people—I can’t do it all myself anymore, at that scale,” he explained. “We will literally have to double our capacity to make the payroll. Good wages for management, good wages for workers, there’s a lot of things to factor in.” As they progress toward that new facility, he continues to scratch his head over whether they can guarantee doubling their workload.

Sailer sees his colleagues and competition around him, and worries about the future. He sees small, family-operated meat processors and wonders if they have an “escape plan,” as he calls it. They may not have a family member or next generation ready to step in, and selling this type of business can be hard, even in good times. He says he doesn’t want to see them shut down, but he knows the demand is still strong, and growing, and hopes his new facility can help fuel that.

“Labor and training will always be a meat processors nightmare,” Sailer said. Like many others who have worked their whole careers in the meat cutting business, he worries about a shortage in the workforce. He sees it as a promising career; starting wages are high for a rural area, and there’s always work for people who want it. He hopes that educational programs that introduce students to butchery, among other trades, can help young people see the opportunity that’s here.

Issues for Farmers

Every year on our farm, we raise a small number of animals—hogs, lambs, and poultry. They provide a number of biological benefits, and also a much-needed diversification in our income stream. Every year we have more people interested than we’re able to provide for, and every year we think about what it would look like to expand. There are, of course, a lot of factors that go into considering more livestock on a farm, but as for many of our farmer colleagues, the question of access to processing is one of the biggest. Like all of those farmers back in March who panicked when processors shut down, we fear being left with animals with no place to go.

Rachel Henderson and her husband, Anton Ptak, own Mary Dirty Face Farm near Menomonie, Wisconsin. She is also an on-farm organic specialist for MOSES. You can reach her through the Organic Answer Line: 888-90-MOSES

 

From the September | October 2020 Issue

 

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