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By Jake Goodrick
Gillette News Record Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Pandemic slams independent meat processors and ranchers


July 23, 2020

GILLETTE – When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Wyoming and with the coronavirus having spread through much of the United States, Todd Koehler saw the impacts firsthand at his independent meat processing business, Koehler’s Wild Game.

As fears of food shortages gripped the nation, many people early on stocked up on groceries and other supplies. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer were often difficult to find. While grocery shelves stayed mostly stocked, one major part of the U.S. supply chain has struggled to get its product to stores: the meat industry.

“Panic,” Koehler said of the overall virus response. “We didn’t create more people, we didn’t create less food. People just panic bought.”

This time of year is usually slow for Koehler. Most years, he would close Mondays and Tuesdays and spend a lot of his time on maintenance as opposed to processing and packaging meats.

He’s busiest during the fall hunting season, but this year he was open every day of the week March through May just trying to catch up on orders.

“People are buying more bulk product,” he said. “They’re buying half beef, they’re buying whole hogs. This is supposed to be our slowest time of the year and we can’t keep up. We’ve never been this far behind before.”

In the past, processing appointments for ranchers and other customers are usually made two to three weeks in advance. Now, Koehler is scheduling appointments as far ahead as March 2021 to accommodate all of the new business.

There are several factors leading to the deluge of calls he has received lately.

For one, consumers may be growing uncertain if they can continue to depend on their grocery stores to have the food they need when they need it. Koehler said bulk orders for people stocking up their freezers with meats has been common lately.

Also, there are the broader industry effects of the recent problems in the meat processing industry. COVID-19 outbreaks have caused some major meat processing plants across the country to shut down temporarily, prompting a ripple effect that goes all the way to the ranchers who supply those plants and the consumers who buy their products.

In early March, Kimberly Pridgeon and her family had just bought a home in Gillette and were in the process of a major move. On top of needing to load up on food for her family of six, she also had to fill her new home with other essentials — like toilet paper, paper towels, soap — that were becoming harder to come by.

When grocery shopping one day in Spearfish, South Dakota, she was shocked. Chicken, pork and beef were nowhere to be found.

“It opened our eyes to prepare,” Pridgeon said. “We had to make sure we had enough food for the table.”

She got in contact with Big Horn Meat Cutting in Buffalo. Being new to town, Pridgeon didn’t know any ranchers herself, but her meat processor put her in touch with a rancher who had pre-existing processing dates booked. She was able to stock her family up with a whole hog in about three weeks from the time she called.

After that, she went in on a whole beef with some of her nearby extended family.

For many consumers or ranchers calling to book future dates, they may have to wait months for appointments, Koehler said.

The pandemic has hit some ranchers hard. Many have had to settle for selling their cattle for less money than expected. Outbreaks in meat-packing plants throughout the country often caused shutdown, which in turn led to fewer animals being processed and distributed.

That left many ranchers with lots of livestock they are desperate to unload, giving price leverage to feed lots and processing plants.

The result is less meat on grocery store shelves and higher sticker prices on what stores do have in stock.

When the meat plants are not operating, less livestock is sold, leaving ranchers with animals to feed and nowhere to sell them.

On larger ranches when that happens, it is not uncommon for the livestock to be euthanized, Koehler said.

The meat processing industry in the United States is primarily controlled by the “Big Four” companies: Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS USA, National Beef Packing Co. and Tyson Foods. Those companies combine to slaughter more than 80 percent of feedlot cattle in the United States.

In June, a letter addressed to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, signed by Wyoming Republican Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, among others, called for new regulations applied to the meat processing industry as a response to the supply chain difficulties exposed by the pandemic.

“When high-capacity processing facilities experienced outbreaks amongst employees, operations were forced to shut-off or slow down production, leaving the rancher with livestock they could not move and the consumer with either empty grocery shelves or overpriced products,” the letter said.

In April, a Facebook group began in Wyoming in response to the meat industry crisis. The group connects local ranchers directly to consumers. In the time since its creation, the page, now called The U.S. Meat and Produce Market, has evolved into a nationwide network of buyers and sellers. The page hosts an interactive map with the names and locations of ranchers across the country.

The group has more than 20,000 members and is still picking up steam.

“It’s been really, really helpful,” said B.J. Bender. “We’ve needed something like that map for a long time.”

Bender is a Wyoming rancher in Centennial. Although her ranch is not large enough to be a farm system for the big feedlots and major processors on the national level, she has formed a strong business around direct local sales.

She runs Taste of the Wind along with her business partner, Chris Edwards. Together, their business is focused on the idea of forging local connections and raising ethical livestock while reducing waste and improving the environment.

“We have had a serious increase in demand since the pandemic,” Bender said. “Most people got freaked out when the meat shortage started happening and they started seeing products unavailable at the grocery stores and they started reaching out to local producers like us to see what they could get.”

Pre-arranged processing times scheduled prior to the pandemic helped her meet some of the increased demand this year. But when it comes to scheduling future appointments, she will have to get in line with the rest of the ranchers vying for a time slot.

“Everybody I know is struggling to find a place to get butcher dates,” she said.

When dealing in local livestock, ranchers can answer questions about where their meat is coming from, how it is being fed and who is raising it. That transparency is something that Bender said her customers value. Those benefits are something she thinks will retain new customers who came during the meat shortage.

“They have continued to buy local since things came back to normal,” she said.

For smaller processors like Koehler, there is only so much storage space and so many hours in the day to keep up with all of the business.

“We are limited to how many we can do,” Koehler said. “And we will take care of our longtime customers the best we possibly can. But again, it’s a matter of logistics. We have to sleep.”

The market has mostly stabilized since the first months of panic-buying and empty display coolers, but local processors are still slammed and the public may be scarred from the shortage of meat that was once so affordable and common.

Also, coronavirus case counts are still rising in many U.S. states. If a second wave comes sometime this year, it is unclear if consumers can rely on the meat industry to keep its product in stores.

“I think people realize where their food comes from, it’s the grocery store,” Koehler said. “And if the grocery store doesn’t have it, what are you going to do?”

Koehler and Bender are both relatively small compared to other processors and ranchers in their industries. But with the recent turmoil within the meat industry, they may be well positioned to be on the forefront of the next buy-local boom.

“I think they’re going to go local,” Koehler said. “I think they are going to go more and more buying from the rancher. They want to know where their product is coming from.”


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