What do you do if you’re a rancher with five semitrailer loads of cattle ready to go but there’s no room at the feedlots because COVID-19 outbreaks at the big meatpacking plants have thrown the system out of whack?
If you’re Jean Seymour, you quickly line up slots at a couple of small, local processing plants, use Facebook and word of mouth to let people know you have a lot of beef for sale and hit the road, driving from one part of the state to another to make deliveries.
Seymour, whose family ranches in Olathe, pulled her trailer loaded with beef into the back parking lot of the Grizzly Rose nightclub in Denver last week to make her last delivery. She, her daughter, Amanda, and a family friend, Kaydee Cavender, handed out the boxes of meat, the equivalent of a little over six animals, and collected the payments.
The delivery included an anonymous donation of 800 pounds of beef for the Colorado Association of Family and Children’s Agencies.
“I sold three semi loads, 105 head (of cattle) a half an animal at a time. So, I basically have 210 customers,” Seymour said as she waited for the final buyer to show up.
She also has 5,000 more miles on her truck after crisscrossing Colorado. Her journey started when the JBS USA meatpacking plant in Greeley shut down because of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus among employees. It was closed for two weeks in April so it could be cleaned and the work spaces could be modified.
Seymour drove the other two semis of cattle to a JBS plant in Utah.
Eight Greeley JBS employees have died from COVID-19 and at least 300 have tested positive for the virus. Beef, poultry and pork processing plants nationwide have had outbreaks during the pandemic, due in part to the fact that employees work close to each other for several hours. Recent testing showed that 277 workers at a Long Prairie, Minn., beef plant had the coronavirus, the Star Tribune reported.
The result has been a backup at feedlots and lower prices for ranchers because of the growing number of cattle in the pipeline. On the other end of the supply chain, people are paying more for meat in the stores and can’t always find what they’re looking for. Grocery stores have put per-customer limits on some meat purchases.
Other results have been a huge surge in demand by both ranchers and consumers for the services of smaller processing plants around the state. The question that ranchers, processors and agriculture experts are asking is whether current concerns about the health and reliability of the beef supply will produce lasting changes.
“There’s been some awakening in the general public about some of the challenges of how the food product system currently works with its centralization and control by a very small group of large packers. There’s just a renewed interest in buying locally and regionally,” said Julie Sullivan.(
Sullivan and her husband, George Whitten, raise cattle on their ranch near Saguache in the San Luis Valley. The animals don’t go to feedlots before being slaughtered. They are certified as grass-fed and organic and go from the pasture to small processing plants in the area and a larger facility in Brush.
Sullivan, a member of the Western Landowners Alliance, which works on conservation and land management, said she and her husband helped start the rancher-owned Sweet Grass Cooperative, which sells beef in Colorado and New Mexico.
“I’m not disparaging people who choose to sell into the commodity market, who choose to raise their animals and sell them into the more industrial system,” Sullivan said. “I personally have never liked that system or wanted to participate in it.”
Sullivan said she and other like-minded ranchers are exploring whether the coronavirus-related disturbances are an opportunity to give local processors more business, allowing them to expand their facilities and add more jobs. It might be an opportunity to make the food system more resilient, she added.
Keith Belk, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, said the smaller processing plants across the state are experiencing big increases in business.
“There’s clearly an opportunity for companies that want to open, or construct or enter the business at the small plant level,” Belk said.
The large beef plants have stepped up production again, nearing 80%-90% of their capacity, Belk said. But he doesn’t expect them to ever return to their former levels because of structural changes needed to separate workers.
And one sign that the system is still backed up is that cattle being slaughtered now weigh about 47 pounds more than usual, meaning they were held in feedlots longer than normal.
Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it easier for meat and poultry producers to get their product to market. One suggestion is to help cover federal inspection fees for USDA-certified processing plants that work overtime.
“We’ve seen demand at our local facilities and for local meat kind of go through the roof, and our system right now is not set up to meet that demand,” said Kate Greenberg, the Colorado state agriculture commissioner. “The conversation has really started to shift to what does it look like from here on out to build greater resilience into our food system.”
One option Greenberg and others have discussed is starting a state meat inspection program, which Colorado hasn’t had since the 1970s. States with their own programs can seek federal approval that would allow processing plants to sell their meat across state lines.
In Colorado, the state inspects small, custom processors, but the meat can’t be sold commercially.
Homestead Meats in Delta is USDA certified and has federal inspectors on site. It’s one of the plants where Seymour, the Olathe rancher, took her beef when JBS in Greeley temporarily closed. The plant is owned and operated by six ranch families, who also have a small retail store in town.
The store’s business has been on the rise since the pandemic hit and some chain stores started limiting meat purchases, said Gary Peebles, the plant manager. Employees have had to take time with some new customers who aren’t used to buying a quarter or half of an animal. They do seem to appreciate that the animals are locally grown and processed, he said.
That is increasingly a draw for consumers, “foodies” and sustainable agriculture advocates say. The Good Meat Project, which provides consumer education and works with farmers and ranchers across the country, is collaborating with the Western Landowners Alliance to promote interest in local and regional food operations. The Good Meat Project has added resources on its website for individuals looking for locally produced meat and producers looking for customers.
“We want to give consumers a vocabulary to talk to those farmers. Right now it’s so important because there’s such an increase in consumer demand to buy meat directly from farmers,” said Camas Davis , the project’s executive director.
No one’s really talking about local and regional meatpacking processors and cooperatives replacing the existing system in which four large companies — JBS, Cargill, Tyson and National Beef — control more than 80% of the beef supply. A large, efficient system helps keep food affordable, said Belk, the CSU professor.
Davis said the issue is more about expanding local and regional food supply chains that can work within the larger system rather than compete with it.
“This pandemic has shined a light on opportunities in which we can kind of restructure big food, big ag and help both small ranchers and producers and consumers at the same time,” she said.
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