ARGYLE — When it comes to raising, processing and selling beef and pork in a pandemic, Capital Region farmers and processors are finding out that smaller may be better.
“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of new customers,” said Adam Tripp of Locust Grove Smokehouse and Country Grocery in Argyle.
In addition to the store and meat smoking operation, they have a small USDA-approved slaughterhouse where farmers from the surrounding area bring their beef and hogs for processing into meat.
With closures earlier in April of mega-meat plants in the Midwest, farmers are turning to places like Locust Grove. Their slaughterhouse is booked through December, said Tripp.
They’ve also had to turn retail customers away, locking their doors at one point as people from Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs and Clifton Park have come looking for beef or pork.
Likewise with Kevin Jablonski, who runs the nearby Mack Brook Farm with his wife, Karen.
They specialize in grass-fed beef and have a steady base of retail customers. They are selling all they can.
Seventy miles south in Ghent, Columbia County, Phil Trowbridge is turning people away from his eponymous farm. “We have people stopping by every day that want beef,” he said, explaining that he only has so much to sell.
All of these producers stress, however, that the nation isn’t running out of beef or pork. There is still plenty of cattle and swine out there.
But spot shortages and some panic buying have developed in recent days among the well-publicized pandemic-related shutdowns of major slaughterhouses in farm belt states like South Dakota, Iowa, eastern Colorado, Minnesota and even Pennsylvania.
President Donald Trump this week used his executive powers to order the plants reopened, declaring they are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
But with the demands of social distancing in normally cramped slaughterhouse workspaces, production is likely to go slower. And the closure of even a few days created a national backup or logjam in the meat supply.
Grocers stress that the shortages are on a spot basis.
“We are relying on a vast network of distributors, as well as surplus from the food service side of the supply chain, and expect to be able to fulfill normalized needs this week into next week,” said Price Chopper/Market 32 spokeswoman Mona Golub.
“Though beef, chicken and pork supply had evened itself out since the initial 7-10 day surge of the pandemic, news of the plant closures has caused some residual panic-buying in fresh meat,” Golub said. “What we’ve said about the general food supply all along is applicable to the meat supply: “As long as we are all respectful of one another, there is plenty to go around.”
“Customers may temporarily have fewer options and less variety than they are accustomed to, including in our meat department, but they will continue to have access to chicken, pork, beef and other proteins,” added Hannaford supermarket spokesman Eric Blom.
“We maintain relationships with a variety of suppliers and also are purchasing product from plants that would typically supply meat to restaurants,” he said, adding that they are asking people not to buy more than they need.
The pandemic-driven closure of restaurants has had a big impact on the meat industry, explained Dave MacVane of Fred the Butcher in Halfmoon.
Restaurants consume about 40 percent of the nation’s meat. With that market drying up, he said, major processing plants had slowed production, which was exacerbated by the closures. Like other small food sellers with loyal longtime customers, Fred the Butcher has seen a jump in interest as people broaden their search for meat products.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed what people are buying, said MacVane.
“A lot has shifted. The consumers are buying almost like they were buying the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.
Rather than costly gourmet cuts of prime rib or porterhouse, they are purchasing ground hamburger meat and chuck cuts, which will economically feed a family for a long period of time, he said. People are clearly worried about the economy and their jobs and it is showing up in buying patterns.
As a small retailer, MacVane also believes he has some advantages over giant supermarket chains or big box stores. He buys his meat in smaller lots, which gives him more flexibility.
MacVane gets much of his meat from the Hunts Point market in New York City or from a similar shipping terminal in Boston.
That illustrates the wide and far-reaching supply chain that consumers depend on.
Local farmers and processors like Trowbridge, Jablonski and Tripp offer a measure of diversification, but they can’t feed the entire state. New Yorkers as a whole still rely on the national supply chain.
Many of the beef farmers in New York, for instance, send their animals to large processing plants in Pennsylvania, which have also been disrupted by the coronavirus.
New York has almost no large slaughterhouses. “Most meat processors in upstate New York fall into the USDA category of small or very small establishments,” said Betsy Jensen, manager of the meat laboratory at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.
Nor do people realize how complex and multidimensional the modern meat industry is.
Animals have to be raised and then “finished,” often in a feed lot and with a special diet to soften up the meat prior to slaughtering. The carcasses then have to be packed and shipped to supermarkets or purveyor venues like Hunts Point.
Farmers like Jablonski hope, if nothing else, the pandemic highlights the advantages of getting one’s food from local sources when possible.
“I hope this would start a trend of buying local, eating local, keeping the money in the neighborhood and supporting the local farmers,” he said.
But he also realizes that raising beef cattle is a lot harder and more complicated than it may sound. One needs fencing and a water source as well as the ability to feed and finish the animals, as well as keep them healthy. Farmers in the 21st century also need to know how to market their product.
“Most people think you go to the grocery store and pick up your beef,” added Trowbridge. “They don’t realize that process started three years before you went to the grocery store.”
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