From farmers to distributors to processing plants to grocery workers, the coronavirus continues to blindly take a large toll on essential workers across the food system. On day 63 of quarantine in Michigan, it’s becoming all too familiar to find grocery store shelves with fewer and fewer meat options, while some are completely bare depending on the day of the week. Simultaneously, the demand for meat sold directly from small farmers to Michiganders’ deep freezers has grown exponentially.
However, the small meat processing plants are stretched as thin as the large plants. Under local health department guidelines, they must shut down if any of their employees become ill or test positive for COVID 19. Now, many of the custom and USDA facilities are booked through January, 2021. So when another one has to shut down, it creates a hefty ripple effect. Across the state, farmers are getting calls from processors reducing orders that have been scheduled for months, rising processor fees, and ultimately leaving farmers with only a percentage processed of what they’d hoped to earn for the season.
And yet, so many small farmers have seen an increase in business with the virus. Debi Kidder of Resonance Center Farm in Cheboygan told me that because of the pandemic, “new customers wanting clean food have found us.” Bryanna Beyer of Beyer Farm in Alpena said, “From a beef standpoint, our farm sold six months of steers to the butcher in one week. It was crazy and now we’re out until fall.” The Cook Family Farm in Gaylord has been extremely busy during the virus epidemic, but faced multiple obstacles. Matriarch Waneta Cook declared, “It has been incredibly challenging to be able to provide meat to meet the demand. The other challenge is being able to get animals processed. The USDA processor that we use is extremely busy. This is due to the shut down of other USDA plants in the state. We are fortunate because we were very proactive right at the beginning to schedule multiple processing dates.” Cook Family Farm also owns a MDA licensed poultry processing facility; this allows them to process and sell their own chickens without the concern of having to wait for a processor.
Most small farms don’t have the type of infrastructure to process and sell on site, and can only get their meat into retail stores if it is USDA processed. The demand is there to levy a more successful locally-resourced food system. And it’s increasing for small farmers using sustainable practices as more people have begun to pay attention to the food system and its impact. Yet, limited access to USDA processors in the Northeast of the state, especially, and government regulations about custom-slaughtered meat still create hurdles. But, as the coronavirus has altered just about everything, it’s also created opportunities.
On May 11, 78 organizations and over 350 farms and ranches sent a letter in support of the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (PRIME Act), HR 2859, to Congress. The bill would allow custom slaughtered meat from small local processors into retail stores; no more waiting for USDA processing. This would be a necessary first step in leveling the playing field for small farmers and ranchers against conglomerates. Nick Montie of Montie Farms believes one struggle that propagates this unsustainable system lies in that “most of the profit from meat purchased in the store primarily goes to the four major meat producers that rely on cheap labor. Buying local has a significantly smaller carbon footprint, the animals are generally better cared for. The money spent is then reinvested in the local community.” Can you imagine the difference it could make nationwide if small ranchers with sustainable and regenerative practices had access to the same markets as the meat moguls? Corey Standen of Standen Acres in Alpena can. He asked Taste the Local Difference to, “encourage people to contact their Representatives and Senators about co-sponsoring the PRIME Act.” Standen confirmed he spoke with his legislators earlier this week and believes the PRIME Act needs to get passed in order to open up the local food economy. “Right now people want food security and if you get hooked up with a local farmer, you will receive that.”
You can find your legislators and gather sample talking points about the PRIME Act here. Ask to speak to the staffer who handles agricultural issues, and talk with them about why the PRIME Act is important to you and your community.
Photo Credit: B & B Farms
Molly Stepanski is the Local Food Coordinator for northeast Michigan and the Statewide Sales Supervisor. She enjoys reading with her seven year old, planting and hiking in the dirt, cooking up her own recipes, drinking farmhouse cider, and eating lots of fresh, seasonal produce (and anything deep-fried, in accordance with her southern heritage). She owns and operates Presque Isle Farm with her family. Contact her at [email protected].