COVID-19 yanks WNC’s local meat supply chain

Calf at C-Saw Hill Farm
OFF THE TABLE? Brandon Higgins of C-Saw Hill Farm in Rutherford County says his stock of beef and pork ran out in February and no processing capacity has been available at his local facility to refill it. Photo courtesy of Higgins

Fatter prices, slimmer pickings: That’s been the pattern on supermarket shelves as COVID-19 outbreaks have disrupted livestock and poultry processing facilities across the U.S. In response, many Western North Carolina consumers have started looking to area farmers to keep meat on the table.

The sudden surge in demand has opened new markets for WNC’s small meat producers, many of whom saw wholesale accounts devastated when local restaurants closed their dining rooms. But gridlock at the region’s few small-scale processing facilities has put a kink in the local supply chain.

The coronavirus hasn’t struck employees in North Carolina’s small-scale livestock processing sector the way it has in the state’s larger plants, says Sarah Blacklin, program director for NC Choices, an initiative of N.C. State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems that works to support North Carolina’s local, pasture-based meat supply chain. Instead, she explains that COVID-19 has heightened a mismatch between the desire for local meat and the industry’s ability to produce it.

Roughly 10 small processors are available for all of North Carolina’s local livestock farmers, which Blacklin says caused an average two-week wait for processing appointments even before the pandemic. (The state allows small-scale poultry farmers to process their own birds and limited numbers from other farms.) With higher overall demand and some commodity beef producers now leaning on the local supply chain in their own transition to direct-market sales, she says some farmers can’t get meat processed until the spring of 2021.

Most of the logjam with the state’s mom-and-pop processing plants is on the cut-and-pack end, Blacklin points out, where skilled labor is both necessary and in short supply. “A couple of our processors have said they’ll hire anyone who knows the sharp end of a knife,” she says.

To cope with the onslaught of demand, Blacklin says processors are working around the clock. Employees kill and process as many animals as possible while legally required U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors are on-site, then push noninspected duties like cleanup to overtime hours. “And it is still a huge bottleneck,” she says.

Carnivorous cravings

Justin Burkins, owner and operator of Rooted Earth Farm and Garden in Leicester, had focused until last year on selling nursery plants, vegetables and cut flowers at tailgate markets and through a community-supported agriculture program. But he obtained state approval to sell cut meat in 2019, and this season, direct-market lamb and pork sales have become a mainstay of his business. “With the farmers markets being closed down [in the spring], I wouldn’t have really been selling a lot of perennials, so it kind of saved our butts that a lot of people came looking for meat,” he says.

Wendy and Graham Brugh have also seen a dramatic rise in direct-market demand this season for the grassfed beef and forest-raised pork they produce along with pastured eggs at Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill. The 100-120 heritage-breed pigs they raise each year are their primary source of income, says Wendy, augmented by about 15 head of Belted Galloway cattle.

Before COVID-19 came to the region in March, Dry Ridge sold about 30% of its pork and 20% of its beef wholesale to restaurants and the rest directly to customers at four farmers markets. Although the farm’s wholesale business was completely wiped out with the restaurant shutdown, and two of its usual tailgate markets were closed for the first part of the season, the spike in retail demand has more than made up for those deficits.

“We have been selling 100% of our meat retail and don’t have enough,” says Wendy, noting that Dry Ridge’s meat sales in April and May were triple and quadruple, respectively, over the same months last year. “People are now coming to the local producers because our prices are now more comparable to the conventional meat prices, because the conventional meat processing plants have been so directly impacted by COVID,” she observes.

Too much to chew?

Justin Burkins and family at Rooted Earth Farm and Garden
TABLE FOR FIVE: Justin Burkins, rear, says the animals from his Rooted Earth Farm and Garden in Leicester that he is unable to process at a USDA-inspected facility will end up as food for his family. Photo by Katie Richard

The meat may be flying out of tailgate market coolers, but getting the goods to that point of sale has become much trickier. Prior to COVID-19 disruptions, Burkins was used to just calling Snapps Ferry Packing Co. in Greenville, Tenn., whenever he needed USDA-inspected butchering and was usually able to come the following day. Now, he says, Snapps is booked through March 2021 due to demand spurred by the pandemic, as well as an influx of displaced customers from Mantooth’s Custom Meats, another East Tennessee butchering business that burned down in early June.

Rooted Earth did manage to book appointments back in the spring for August and October to help meet demand from a waiting list of customers eager to buy prime cuts like Boston butts and pork chops. But the animals Burkins was unable to schedule at Snapps will be slaughtered on the farm for his family’s consumption. “They’ll be personal for us this year, which isn’t a terrible thing,” he says. “Sometimes, you eat your profits.”

The Brughs work with Wells Jenkins Wells, a USDA-inspected kill, cut and wrap facility and retail meat market in Forest City. Its slaughterhouse, normally able to schedule processing within a month of request, is completely booked through the end of 2020. As a consequence, Wendy says Dry Ridge Farm’s planning has gotten sticky.

Pigs, she explains, must be slaughtered between 24 and 28 weeks old. “You can’t keep a pig on the ground for longer because they’ll get too big, and you can’t bring it in earlier, because it’ll be too small,” she says. “So we brought in 30 pigs in February and another 30 pigs in April. Typically, the ones from February would mostly still be in the freezer, but come April, all of those pigs were sold. So I only had 30 pigs to get us through the summer.”

With her next processing appointment in September, Wendy is only selling Dry Ridge products at markets every other week rather than weekly due to lack of supply. And the delays have forced her into the odd situation of having to schedule pigs for slaughter before they’re even born. “So if a sow didn’t catch the first month and she farrows monthly, my processing date is going to be too early,” she says.

Cutting deep

Unfortunately, there may not be slack in slaughtering schedules anytime soon. Jeff Wells, owner of Wells Jenkins Wells, says his operation, which processes about 25 head of beef and 15-20 hogs a week for farms all over WNC, has been going full throttle since March, and there’s no end in sight. “We have a list of 500 people that want to be on January’s calendar when we start taking appointments for next year,” he says.

When his calendar first started getting backed up, forcing farmers to reserve kill dates six and seven months in advance, Wells assumed many would eventually cancel and free up space in the schedule. That hasn’t been the case.

“I thought they won’t even keep these appointments; it’s so far out that they don’t know what they’re going to do then,” he says. “But people have been pretty faithful with these appointments up until now.”

Scheduling limits have forced farmers like Brandon Higgins to adapt. He raises grass-fed beef and pastured pork and chicken at C-Saw Hill Farm in Rutherford County, selling his products to restaurants and directly to customers at the Rutherford County Farmers Market and Landrum Farmers Market just over the state line in South Carolina.

Due to limited freezer space at his farm, Higgins normally processes one head of beef and a couple of hogs per month at Wells Jenkins Wells, making appointments with the facility just two weeks to a month in advance. But this year, when he called in February for his first spring slaughter, he was informed the next available date was in August.

“Our sales actually increased in January and February because we had product,” Higgins recalls. “But since our product ran out in February, we’ve been in a holding pattern trying to get stuff processed.”

Due to the dearth of inventory, C-Saw Hill has been unable to participate in the Landrum market so far this season. At least in the short term, the farm’s losses have been significant: “Normally we sell 10 to 12 beef a year, and this year we’ve sold two,” Higgins says.

The farm processes its own meat chickens, Higgings notes, and those sales have been helpful. He also switched gears in late spring to focus on producing and selling raw dairy products, including milk, cheese curds, butter and yogurt (all marketed in accordance with North Carolina law as “not for human consumption”).

Though the dairy offerings have been well received at the Rutherford County market, Higgins says they don’t make up for the loss of beef and pork sales. “We’re lucky in the fact that my wife and I both work full-time,” he says. “If we were relying just on that income, we’d be in a world of hurt.”

Growth potential

Although Wendy Brugh with Dry Ridge Farm admits it’s frustrating to be sold out of meat when customers are clamoring for it, she counts herself lucky. “It’s been tricky to navigate, but we definitely have the highest sales we’ve ever had,” she says. “It’s almost embarrassing to say that because I know that so many people are struggling so hard, but I think if you’re in the local meat business right now, people want it.”

Wells, who has watched the WNC meat industry evolve for decades, sees the current flood of demand leading to a prosperous future for small-scale producers once processing hurdles are addressed. “Eating is a new pastime in America in the pandemic. We can’t go to a baseball game, we can’t go to Disney World, but we can stay home and eat a big ribeye,” he observes.

“People that used to kill two beef a year, they’re killing 50 a year, and they’re selling them and they’re getting a premium price for a premium product,” he continues. “They’ve definitely got something that Walmart does not offer. Some of them are going to benefit; some of them are going to build a client base that never fades.”

On July 1, Wells and others in WNC’s local meat industry welcomed news that N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper had signed into law N.C. House Bill 1023. The legislation allocates $10 million from federal COVID-19 relief as grants to help small-scale processing facilities retool and expand capacity. Applications for the grants were due Aug. 12, and Wells hopes to qualify, with an eye toward making big changes. “We hope to double, if not triple, our processing capacity,” he says. “That would help a lot of people.”

Blacklin applauds this support from the state legislature. But she also points out that consumers can do their part to relieve pressure on the supply chain — and score some meaty deals — by skipping the cut-and-wrap part of the slaughter process and purchasing whole animals or meat in bulk directly from local farmers. She suggests the online tool, which helps connect farmers and consumers for bulk meat sales.

NC Choices also has a YouTube channel with videos on bulk pricing, ways to cook unusual cuts of meat, how to plan freezer space for bulk buys and more. “It can be a little bit intimidating, but what we’re hoping is that once we jump over that learning curve, this kind of buying could stick, at least a decent percentage of it, beyond COVID,” says Blacklin.

Although Rooted Earth’s Burkins fears that many small WNC farms won’t survive the travails of the pandemic, he also harbors some optimism. “As restaurants start to open back up and tourism and life go back to normal again, I think there’s definitely going to be a chance for small farms to grab some market space,” he says. “If they’re organized and some of these bills go through that make processing easier, we could have a period where some people have some growth and positive things come out of this.”


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