Where’s the Meat?

There aren’t many good things to say about the pandemic that has dragged on for 7 months with no end in sight. One silver lining for almost every small-scale farmer I’ve spoken with: customers have been flocking to buy local food this year, especially meat and eggs. If you are one of those customers, thank you! Even this silver lining has a downside though; these farms are running short of many products, and many of their customers are upset.

So why don’t the farms just produce more? Here’s the heart of the sticky dilemma faced by every meat and egg producer in the local supply chain, and it all comes down to uncertainty. Farming requires extensive advance planning. From hatching to laying, it’s 6 months before a hen produces an egg. A pig is typically 8-10 months old at slaughter, and for beef, from the time you breed the mama cow until her calf is born, fattened, and ready for slaughter is well over 3 years! If all of the farmers who are running out of product now decide to scale up to meet demand, they won’t have more product to sell for 6 months (at a minimum) to 3+ years. Will the demand still be there?

The other complication with scaling up is selling meat is contingent on being able to get appointments at a slaughterhouse. In normal times, farmers call a year in advance for Fall/Winter appointments, and a lot less for Spring and Summer appointments. But COVID has buried slaughterhouses in a landslide of work. I’ve spoken with 8 slaughterhouses recently who all say they are booked solidly through 2021. Some of them have hundreds of people on their waiting list, and are even turning away their long-time customers because they simply can’t find space for them.

Frustrated farmers have begun seriously contemplating opening their own slaughter facility. This is not an endeavor to undertake lightly, as it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to open a custom exempt facility (one that can process meat for “freezer trade,” when customers buy 1/2 or whole animals), up to millions of dollars for a USDA-inspected facility (one that can process meat into retail cuts for a farmer to sell anywhere). And it will likely take a year or more to outfit the facility and jump through all the regulatory hoops to be able to process the first animal. Again, will the consumer demand still be there in a year?

This is where you, dear local food enthusiasts, come in. Buying food grown locally is often less convenient than a swing through a one-stop-shop grocery store. But the people who grow food in your community are responsive to your needs, and want to still be here to provide food security through the next crisis. We are willing to invest to grow the scale of production, to feed you and your family. Will you still support us when the current crisis ends?

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