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.



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.

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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.

“The local-regional guy, he lives in the town that his business is located in,” he said. “You can’t cheat people. You can’t treat your workers awful or the whole community knows about it. And you certainly are not going to produce bad food for your neighbors to eat. It’s got built-in checks and balances.”

Cypress Valley Meat Company operates five small plants across Arkansas, including one of only  a handful in the state that are under USDA inspection. Federally inspected facilities are in high demand because meat produced there can be sold directly to consumers and at retail stores, while regulations prevent meat produced at “custom” or “custom-exempt” plants from being sold commercially. That meat can only be used by the owner of the animal.

When COVID-19 hit, Shaw said he was quick to implement safety procedures such as increased sanitizing, physical distancing between workers, compartmentalizing teams, and taking the temperature of everyone who enters each facility.

Since the company has just under 100 employees across all of its locations, Shaw said those changes were easier to implement than they would have been in a meatpacking plant that employs thousands of workers. “I think in some of these massive facilities you’re seeing the same [practices] on paper,” he said. “But can you [implement them] in the same way when you have that many people?”

A company like Tyson, worth $30 billion, certainly has the resources, but like others of its scale it has repeatedly been accused of failing to protect workers. At one plant in Waterloo, Iowa, more than 1,000 workers have been infected and three have died. As late as mid-April, local law enforcement observed unsafe conditions at the plant, including a lack of basic protections such as masks.

Shaw also attributes Cypress Valley’s ability to so far avoid infections among its staff to the personal relationships management has with its employees. The company has been talking to employees about precautions, answering questions, and accepting feedback.

“The buy-in that we’ve got from them… makes a big difference,” he said. “I think the credit has to go to the employees for what they’re doing, and we’re just trying to play our part in keeping them safe.”

Many of the smallest local processors, like Beau Ramsberg at Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, have also managed to steer clear of the crisis so far. Ramsberg raises his own chickens, turkeys, ducks, and hogs, but he also operates an on-farm slaughterhouse for nearby farmers that can process about 750 chickens or eight pigs per week. While the pandemic cost him restaurant customers, his processing business has gone “through the roof.” Rather than slowing down, he’s been moving animals through as quickly as possible.

Chickens in the yard at Beau Ramsberg’s Rettland Farm in Pennsylvania, which operates an on-farm slaughterhouse. (Photo by Lisa Held.)

“I was really paying attention to guidance that was coming out about this stuff before it was making big public headlines,” he said. “Our people started wearing masks early. We started doing disinfection early.” In situations where his employees need to be in close quarters—four people processing poultry simultaneously—they wear face shields. And business keeps humming along.”

“It’s hard to fathom how much growth we’ve picked up and how much new interest we have,” said Ramsberg. ”We have colleagues in the red meat business who are booked through the fall.”

A Slaughterhouse Shortage

When it comes to a shortage of slaughterhouse options, the pandemic is merely exacerbating a reality small farms have faced for a long time. As the industry has become increasingly consolidated over the past several decades, companies like Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS have put small processors out of business.

According to the USDA, there were over 800 plants processing beef and pork and 250 processing chicken under federal inspection as of January 2019. (Some plants do all three, so there is overlap in the numbers.) That’s compared to the more than 9,000 that were open in 1967.

In 2018, the 13 largest plants accounted for 57 percent of the total hogs and cattle processed. And independent farmers couldn’t send their animals to those large plants even if they wanted to—they are owned by meatpackers like Smithfield and JBS, which typically only process animals from their own large contract farms and feedlots.

In Pennsylvania, an agricultural state with many small farms raising grass-fed cattle and pastured chickens, Thomason said she’s had to be very strategic about processing while plotting Primal Supply’s growth. “There has never been enough to service the number of producers in our region,” she said. “Slaughterhouses close and new ones don’t open, and everyone is at capacity all of the time.”

Thomason established a strong relationship with one plant, an approach that has served her well since she opened in 2016. But with her retail business taking off, she’s thinking about whether she should consider scaling up to meet demand. She already has a list of additional farmers to work with, but processing capacity is a challenge. “We have more certainty than most because of this beautiful short supply chain, but it’s never been pushed this hard,” she said. “As much as we could possibly produce, we could sell it right now.”

More than 2,000 miles away in Northern California, the region’s grass-fed beef ranchers are struggling to adjust to COVID-19’s effects on demand while also driving hundreds of miles to process their animals, said Kathy Webster, the food advocacy manager at TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, California. (Disclosure: TomKat has supported Civil Eats in the past.)

It has been a tough decade for niche meat processing in the Bay Area. In 2014, a highly publicized and controversial meat recall led to the shutdown of the region’s only USDA-inspected cattle slaughterhouse. Grassfed meat company Marin Sun Farms then purchased the facility and began processing ranchers’ animals. Then, in January 2020, the company announced it would cease processing for independent ranches to focus on its own growing business. “When I heard that, I immediately knew there was going to be a scramble,” Webster said.

Ranchers in Sonoma have since been forced to drive to facilities hours away, and the pandemic has further complicated the situation. While retail demand for grass-fed beef is up and small processors have continued to operate, some bigger ranches that were using larger plants before are now competing for time slots at those smaller facilities, Webster said.

Long-Term Solutions?

Webster is part of a group of local ranchers and agriculture representatives from Sonoma and Marin counties that is mobilizing the region around various long-term solutions, including building a brick-and-mortar facility, a shared mobile slaughter unit, and transportation fixes. “We’ve come together to design a community-focused solution to the processing bottleneck that will place the needs of ranchers squarely at its center,” she said.

Webster is also one of many who points to a federal policy fix to help bridge the gap between slaughterhouse supply and demand: the PRIME Act. The legislation would change regulations to allow farmers processing animals at “custom plants” to sell their meat, with some limitations. That would potentially shift some of the processing burden off the USDA-inspected facilities and provide growers with more options nearby.

The bill was first introduced in 2015 but never moved forward. Representatives Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) re-surfaced the bill last week with a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging its passage. In the letter, she cited “a dearth of federally inspected slaughter and processing infrastructure” and the challenges it poses for farmers. “The PRIME Act… addresses the very immediate need to get animals processed and to market,” she wrote.

The bill has been gaining traction in the midst of the country’s meat-processing crisis, but many producers say that even if it passes, it won’t do enough to allow them to compete fairly with the big guys.

“It completely falls short,” said Callicrate, who supports the idea that farmers using custom slaughterhouses should have more access to markets, but said there are a few key problems. The new regulations wouldn’t allow producers to sell across state lines and could also hurt the small processors that are USDA-inspected, since operating those plants requires extra resources. He also thinks the bill should include some sort of inspection system to maintain food safety. Plus, in the short term, it may not help meet current demand for a simple reason. “They’re all slammed. They can’t cut anymore animals,” he said.

Additional slaughterhouses are needed to truly increase capacity, but both Callicrate and Ramsberg said that labor shortages pose an additional challenge. And the capital cost to open a new plant is high, especially for a small business owner who knows they’ll be working with slim margins and competing against the high volume and low prices of commodity meat.

In Southern Maryland, however, one model built on a foundation of local producer engagement and state investment is coming together.

For decades, Craig Sewell says independent farmers in the region have been loading their livestock on trailers and trucking animals up to six hours away for processing. Sewell is the marketing and livestock manager for the state-funded Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC). After the Commission received no responses to a 2017 call for proposals to build a new slaughterhouse to serve the region’s farmers, Sewell approached an Amish plant that was already doing custom processing.

The Commission has been working with them for two years to place the operation under USDA inspection for red meat slaughter. While they wait, Sewell said they have been “very busy” meeting an uptick in custom slaughter demand.

At the same time, SMADC provided a $1.8 million grant to build a regional agricultural center in nearby St. Mary’s County. When complete, the center will offer additional butchery and packaging and serve as a distribution point for local meat. The goal is to completely close the loop for local farmers, and to get their animals from farm to consumer conveniently, without leaving the county.

Sewell is especially intent on getting Southern Maryland meats into grocery stores, where some shoppers might be buying commodity meat because it’s the only option. “The people who go to farmers’ markets are low-hanging fruit,” in terms of customers, he said. “We have to get it to people in supermarkets.”

Given the surge in demand for niche meats, farmers and processors are mainly optimistic about the future of projects like this one. But the question everyone is asking is: Will it last? When the center opens in the fall of 2021, how many people will continue to order pastured organic chicken breasts and grass-fed ground beef from their local butcher instead of grabbing cheap steaks at the supermarket, especially given unprecedented surges in unemployment?

Shaw, from Cypress Valley Meats, said that while people have been talking about the problems associated with a consolidated meat industry for ages, this is likely the first time anyone has actually experienced the effects.

“Instead of ‘What happens [when]? It’ll be, ‘Remember when that happened?’ It’s more real than it’s ever been,” he said.

“Hopefully we’re not just an emergency fix,” Kilpatrick said. She’s also hopeful that processors like Shaw will finally get the credit they deserve. “The heroes in grass-fed and regenerative agriculture are always the farmers. But if the processing component goes away, then none of us have a business anymore.”

Top photo credit: Heather Marold Thomason, the butcher-founder of Philadelphia’s Primal Supply Meats, at work. Photo courtesy of Will Figg.

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