Are we heading toward a new food supply system for meat?

Are we heading toward a new food supply system for meat?

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NORA SPRINGS — Last year at this time, Laura and Aaron Cunningham, of Nora Springs, were wrapping up their bulk direct sales winter operation.

The last of the cows would have been processed and the Cunninghams would’ve stocked a freezer with cuts for customers who didn’t want to buy bulk.

This year is a different story.

There are no cuts in the freezer, and the bulk sales season has yet to end. In fact, last week Laura Cunningham spent several hours on Facebook trying to connect those wanting to sell animals with those looking for bulk meat.

“The volume of that business and speed is like we’ve never seen before,” Cunningham said.

A broken system?

Alan Guebert, a nationally syndicated columnist, has written extensively about the United States’ food system, calling it broken.

He noted recently that the coronavirus pandemic has provided proof.

Forty companies now own 4.3 million – or 2 out of 3 – sows (mama hogs) in the United States, according to Successful Farming magazine, Guebert wrote in a recent column. Each of those sows birth 25 piglets on average, and those comprise two-thirds of all hogs that will be born.

Nearly half of those 40 companies work with a small (five or fewer) group of industrial meat packers. It’s the same model with beef – a high consolidated industry.

It’s that consolidation that drove several members of Congress, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley among them, to ask for an investigation into the beef system after futures declined at the same time the meat packers were charging more for the boxed beef they were selling to markets and restaurants.

All told, about 80% of the nation’s meat processing is controlled by a handful of companies. So, when the virus landed in the workplaces of those few meat packers, the food system crashed.

We’ve all seen some evidence of it: Grocers limiting meat purchases amidst empty shelves, prices for beef and pork increasing dramatically, local restaurants removing some meat dishes from their menus.

There’s also less obvious but equally detrimental evidence – farmers have nowhere to dispose of the livestock that was supposed to go to the meat packers. Grassley has introduced legislation to compensate farmers having to euthanize the animals for which they have no room. Other farmers are selling livestock on social media and ad listing services such as Facebook and Craig’s List.

That’s the downside.

But it has also led to the rapid expansion of the heretofore fringe farm-to-table movement on which farmers like the Cunninghams have bet their future.

A bet pays off

“We are currently fully booked for the year,” wrote Clarion Locker on its Facebook page. “We have started a waiting/cancellation list. Please we ask if you are not going to keep your appointment just give us a courtesy call. To get on the cancellation list you have to email: clarionlocker@gmail.com, only call if you have a cutting card to complete we are truly very busy and need all hands on deck.”

Similar posts appeared on the Facebook pages of nearly all lockers in north Iowa. S&S Locker & Liquor in Osage is booked for custom meat processing for the rest of the year. Rockford is booked into the next several months. Louie’s Custom Meats in Clear Lake isn’t doing any processing.

Jeremy Moorehead, owner of the Ventura Locker for the last six years, is booked out to the end of the year for pigs and has a handful of appointments for beef left in the same time frame. His business is so busy they’ve had to let all calls go to their voicemail system.

They’re also selling only a limited amount of retail/counter meat. Moorehead has hired more staff and bought a refrigerator truck to handle the onslaught of farmers looking to sell and consumers looking the buy.

“The phone started ringing about the second week of March,” Moorehead said. “We’re doing triple the business we normally would do this time of year.”

“Normal” is 5-6 heads of cattle and 10-12 hogs. Most of the people calling are looking to buy direct, and nearly all of them have never done it before.

His folks will walk the newbies through the bulk buy process, including providing a menu of cuts available.

“This is the gamble we took six years ago,” Moorehead said. “We were betting on the growing local food movement. People want to know how the animal was raised and what it was fed. And it has been growing.

“I think it’s a sustainable [production system] option for the future.”

The future

Beef farmer Cunningham agrees. She and her husband have been raising cattle for 10 years with the eventual goal of farming full time.

They started doing direct sales about seven years ago because it appealed to the Cunninghams’ interest in focusing on high quality with low rates.

“When you sell in a traditional market, there’s not a much reward for raising that way,” Cunningham said. “With direct you can find a customer that wants their beef raised a certain way.”

The Cunninghams usually would deliver a couple of cows a month, October to April, and also provide cows to Upper Iowa Beef, a wholesaler that specializes in marketing locally grown beef. That’s how some of their beef ends up in local restaurants.

Cunningham said she’d been watching how the beef market was trending and so was relatively prepared when her phone began ringing. They were beginning to scale up and had extra animals to sell, she said.

But it still wasn’t enough. Their bulk season will continue through July at least and each day her phone continues to ring off the hook.

Not one willing to keep turning people away, Cunningham has begun serving as the gateway between farmers and consumers, constantly scouring social media and websites to find local processors still taking orders.

It’s a piece of the farm-to-table puzzle that hasn’t been solved. Consumers don’t have a single place to go to shop for a side of beef or a pig. In response to the pandemic-caused shortage, Mississippi’s Department of Agriculture created a website where consumers can buy not only beef, but fresh foods such as blueberries or honey, direct from the farmer. Ag states all over the United States are reporting an explosion in the farm-to-table market.

“Market direct is where the demand is now,” Cunningham said. “We’re starting the conversations that farmers have been wanting for a long time.”

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