Des Moines Register: As COVID-19 pandemic rocks meatpacking industry, Iowans turn to local farmers to buy meat

As COVID-19 pandemic rocks meatpacking industry, Iowans turn to local farmers to buy meat

Meg and Dave Schmidt have raised grass-fed cattle on their western Iowa farm for eight years, selling beef to a modest clientele they’ve accumulated without having to advertise.

This year, the hunger for meat is threatening to outstrip the supply, as existing customers are clamoring for more and newcomers are somehow finding the Schmidts, hoping for a place at the table. Meg Schmidt said last week that she even took a call from a woman looking to reserve an order of beef for December.

The Schmidts are hardly alone.

Across Iowa, farmers who cater to individual households are experiencing a rise in popularity, thanks to a COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down the state’s restaurants, put a pause to popular farmers’ markets, rocked the meatpacking industry and left some consumers nervous about where they’ll be able to secure their produce in the months ahead.

In response, farmers are taking orders online for the first time, banding together to establish convenient places where residents of Iowa’s largest city can pick up supplies of meat, eggs, cheese and more. Others are considering selling individually wrapped pieces of meat instead of entire quarters or halves of an animal, a way to tap into a base of customers that doesn’t possess large freezers.

“Local producers have a pretty amazing opportunity to provide some security right now, but also some hope,” Meg Schmidt said. “It’s not like there’s no food to be had. You just have to figure out where to get it. And it’s not as far away as you think.”

The Schmidts farm near Exira in west central Iowa, selling about $10,000-12,000 worth of beef annually directly to consumers between Des Moines and Omaha. They typically provide it in bulk for long-term storage.

For the first time this spring, Schmidt said she’s had large numbers of customers coming to the farm looking for much smaller packages. They’ve cleaned the Schmidts out of whatever cuts they had left over from the winter.

“A lot of people are assuming that the food chain is going to be a bit interrupted and wanting to make sure that they have food in their freezer, not just in the grocery store. That they actually have it on hand,” Schmidt said.

“They were doing it because they knew if they didn’t do it now, they probably would miss that chance. I think people are not wanting to run out of food.”

Farmers see sales spike, but demand for meat lockers creates a concern

At Wild Rose Pastures near Van Meter, Ryan Marquardt is suddenly trying to keep up with orders for beef, chicken, turkey and eggs in what normally would be a quieter time for his 12-year-old farm. He normally would be selling $1,000 of produce in March and April.

This year, it’s been more than triple that.

“It’s a matter of inventory and can we keep up,” said Marquardt, who reported a spike in new customers, each willing to spend upwards of $250 per order.

“I’m planning on this being the way life is at least through the spring of next year. I just don’t see a trajectory where we see a radical shift back toward outside eating until there’s a vaccine” for the new coronavirus.

Marquardt estimated that he makes 70% of his sales through the Iowa Food Cooperative. His mailing list of customers consists primarily of addresses in the Des Moines area.

His new concern is booking dates at local meat lockers that are at capacity through June.

This also is a dilemma for A.J. Blair, who has farmed in Dayton, south of Fort Dodge, for 17 years. He has been selling off his cattle but has long been thinking about becoming a retailer at some distant date, directly marketing the beef to consumers. The timing for that seems perfect now. But first Blair needs a state permit to be able to sell meat from his home. And he also requires locker space to process that meat.

Blair said he “made a bunch of appointments here in the last week with local lockers” in anticipation of the transition. In two months, he’ll have cattle that are market-ready. Blair figures it’s a minor risk that could pay off in a new niche for his farm.

“It gives us 60 days to figure out this permitting process and get that all squared away,” he said. “If we don’t get it sold at the locker, then we end up with an animal back in the freezer. And that’s fine if it’s just one. But our family can only eat so much, and then we’d need to re-sell it.

“A good product and a freezer isn’t a whole big gamble, I hope.”

Blair was smart to act quickly to secure a June opening for the processing of his beef. Meat lockers in Iowa are also seeing a dramatic increase in business as local farmers seek to ensure they’ll have something to sell to their new customers.

The Keota Locker is already reserving space in November for handling beef, a backlog three months longer than usual for this time of year. In Atlantic, where the Schmidts take their cattle, capacity has been claimed through the end of the year.

A worker who answered the phone there Thursday, who asked not to be identified, said the locker is witnessing a sharp increase in customers looking to buy meat directly.

“People from the city or who live in town don’t have access to a farmer, don’t know a farmer, so they call the lockers and they say, ‘Hey, does anybody have a beef or a hog?’” she said.

“If you’re a necessity and you’ve got meat, it makes sense that people will find you.”

A new tactic: Filling orders online and bringing the produce to the consumer

Angela and Jason Johnson have been selling pork, beef and mutton at the farmers’ market in downtown Des Moines since 2014, enjoying crowds of up to 20,000 people on a good weekend. But those big crowds likely won’t happen for the foreseeable future.

Jason Johnson said they’ve had to find other ways of reaching the customers of Lucky George Farm, located an hour south of the city. For the first time, the Johnsons are fielding online orders, then hauling the produce to Twisted Vine Brewery in West Des Moines. To make it more appealing for metro customers, the Johnsons have partnered with other farmers to expand the product line.

“People can shop and find milk and cheese as well as meat and have it at a central drop-off point. The more things that you can have in your market basket, so to speak, the better off you are,” Johnson said.

Normally in April, Johnson would be stocking his supplies to be ready for the first Des Moines farmers’ market in early May. Instead, he’s been selling online for three weeks and has already reaped the equivalent of what he would make through an entire season of farmers’ markets.

How soon will people feel comfortable again congregating in crowds at a farmers’ market? Johnson isn’t sure. Either way, his business plan has shifted.

“It’s going to create some opportunities because I think people are going to shop differently. How much, it’s hard to tell,” Johnson said. “No matter what, I’m going to do something like this (online sales) in the future.”

Jill Beebout is another veteran of the Des Moines farmers’ market, where she usually makes 40% of her annual sales of vegetables, eggs, jam and more. Beebout, who operates Blue Gate Farm near Chariton, had seen the demand for local foods diminish the past four years.

She has more than a dozen customers on a waiting list this spring.

“In March, things just blew up,” Beebout said. “A year ago, we added a local meat vendor. We both saw our orders more than double. They’re exceeding our capacity. We’re selling out of most things before we would normally close the order cycle.”

Beebout drops off her products at Peace Tree Brewing Co. in the East Village of Des Moines and in Knoxville. These days, eggs from her 170 chickens are in high demand. The hens can’t keep up with the customer orders. It’s bittersweet for Beebout, who regrets that it took a pandemic for homegrown food suppliers like her to see a rebound.

“It takes such a large event to move us out of our comfort zones,” she said. “When this is over, my hope is that a slice of the population will remember and will continue to make local foods a priority in their life.”

Smaller packages of meat targeted at customers without large freezers

Lynne Schnoebelen bought 9.6 acres of land near Madrid five years ago. That was the genesis of 9.6 Farms, a growing operation that peddles pork, beef, goat, chicken and eggs.

His customer base started as friends and acquaintances, branching out slowly. They’re people who valued knowing where their meat came from and who prepared it, Schnoebelen said. He sold beef by the quarter or half.

Schnoebelen knows that one large size won’t fit all as he tries to satisfy new customers. He thinks he can sell an additional 200 pounds of beef a month in the current climate by offering it in smaller portions.

“A lot of people, the only freezer they’ve got is the top of their refrigerator in their apartment. So to buy a half, a quarter, something like that, there’s no more room for it,” he said.

“If you want to take a chance and get in the package business, that’s kind of where we’re headed. It’s kind of opened that market up for us. I think that’s our niche.”

Back in Exira, the Schmidts are monitoring the same changing consumer demands. Last week, Meg Schmidt stumbled upon a batch of chickens that she wanted to buy to replenish their egg-laying operation. The seller said she’d need to act fast. Schmidt drove two hours to haul the birds home.

“They’re the new toilet paper,” she said.