Civil Eats: As COVID-19 Disrupts the Industrial Meat System, Independent Processors Have a Moment to Shine

Civil Eats – As COVID-19 Disrupts the Industrial Meat System, Independent Processors Have a Moment to Shine

Big Meat put most small slaughterhouses out of business. Those left are demonstrating their resilience, but their limited numbers point to the need for improved infrastructure.

By Lisa Held

Posted on: May 19, 2020

Donna Kilpatrick runs the 1,200-acre regenerative Heifer Ranch, which produces grass-fed beef and pastured chicken and pork in central Arkansas. She also helped start the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, which sells meat from Heifer and 32 other local farms online. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she’s been busier than ever.

“Demand is off the charts. That’s what I hear from everybody doing e-commerce,” she explained while moving 250 cows through a pasture. Thankfully, nearby Cypress Valley Meat Company has been operating at max capacity to process animals from the 950 local farms it works with. “We’re taking in everything that we can possibly take in right now at every facility,” said CEO Andy Shaw.

Across the country, processors like Shaw are doing the same. Shutdowns and slowdowns of meatpacking plants in the consolidated, industrial system have led to meat shortages at grocery stores and the euthanization and disposal of millions of animals. Meanwhile, small and mid-size slaughterhouses, packers, and butchers are staying open. In many cases, they’re ramping up production.

Small-scale and pasture-based farmers and the processors with whom they work have long touted the superior resilience of this alternative system, which they see as returning value to regional economies and respecting animals, workers, and the environment. But they have struggled to compete with the largest meatpackers, who have consolidated animals into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and processing into large plants that utilize fast line speeds and cheap labor, resulting in meat that is significantly cheaper at the grocery store. As a result, meat from independent producers often costs two to five times as much as its conventional counterpart.

Despite that fact, Heather Marold Thomason says it might just be time for small producers to shine. “Our supply chain is secure. The food is going to keep coming,” said Thomason, the butcher-founder of Philadelphia’s Primal Supply Meats, which is working to build a supply chain that connects regional farmers and slaughterhouses with restaurants and home cooks who value sustainably raised meat. “When everything falls away around us, we’ll be standing here doing what we’ve always been doing.”

Donna Kilpatrick at Heiffer Ranch in Arkansas relies on Cypress Valley Meat Company to slaughter her animals. (Photo courtesy of Heifer International.)

According to farmers, meatpackers, and experts throughout the industry, it’s also the perfect time to highlight the need for more investment in the kinds of local infrastructure that support smaller, more resilient meat producers and systems.

Smaller, Safer Plants

Some agricultural economists say there is little evidence that localized meat production that relies on smaller farms and processors is a more resilient system. But Mike Callicrate, a Colorado-based cattle producer and advocate who owns Ranch Foods Direct, disagrees.

Since the pandemic began disrupting the commodity meat system, he’s been doing double the business he did before. “The more highly concentrated the system… the more vulnerable it is to break down,” he said.

Large plant shutdowns lead to a significant drop in supply, while small plant shutdowns lead to gaps in supply that other processors can easily make up, he said. Callicrate also believes smaller producers are more accountable to their communities. MORE