Small farmers see a silver lining as the pandemic affects Ohio's meat industry
Brandi Anderson runs a small farm about 40 miles west of Columbus. It’s called Women that Farm.
She grew up raising cattle not far from Dayton. By 2015 she quit her job as a grain elevator manager in London, Ohio. She and her husband began raising Holstein and black Angus cattle on their own.
They now sell that same beef directly to consumers; Anderson advertises it on social media and an email list.
The demand to process their meat is so high right now, to get her animals slaughtered and processed, Anderson books a slot with her butcher a year in advance. Meaning, she’s booking for calves that haven’t been born yet.
Anderson said when people started seeing empty shelves at the grocery stores early on in the pandemic, they turned to her and many other small farmers across the state.
“Because of everything during COVID, I think people just realized like, whoa, there's so much more out there,” Anderson said. “So it’s been good for a lot of us.”
She said she’s had to raise prices for her meat after the cost of corn for feed and virtually every other cost has increased with inflation. But despite that, business has been good.
She adds as a small farmer, she brings a personal touch that she wouldn’t want to trade for a bigger operation.
“I want to be somebody's farmer. I want somebody to be able to put my face with that protein that's on their plate,” Anderson said. “We just want to build our dream, and that's all we've done. We're happy with our little piece of dirt.”
Right now, many consumers are looking for a stronger connection with their food and more control over where it comes from.
This trend isn’t unique to Ohio. It’s happening all across the midwest. Just ask Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociology professor at the University of Missouri.
“We saw a lot of that in 2020, during the early part of the pandemic, we saw a lot of people worried about their food and worried about empty shelves.” Hendrickson said.
The empty shelves were, indirectly, the result of consolidation in the meat processing industry. Four major companies control more than 80% of the beef industry, about 67% of pork and 50% of the poultry markets.
When the pandemic hit, there were outbreaks at Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS and National Beef Packing Company plants all across the country.
A Congressional select subcommittee report revealed at least 59,000 employees from those packing companies got sick with COVID-19. It resulted in those plants being temporarily suspended.
“The pandemic really knocked meat packing for a loop. Let's put it that way. They weren't prepared for the large number of workers not being able to come to work,” Hendrickson said. “But this has been a long simmering problem, it just doesn't appear overnight.”
Concentration and consolidation in the agriculture industry has increased in the last 40 years. In a consolidated industry, farmers, workers and supply areconnected. When one channel is hit, it can negatively impact the rest of the industry, according to a report from the Family Farm Action Alliance.
Hendrickson said this type of consolidation hurts both farmers and consumers. It means those big companies control prices at the supermarket and the prices for the cattle they buy from the farmers.
“There's fewer meatpackers, so farmers don't have any choices of where they're going to sell their animals,” Hendrickson said. “ So it's something that is at the heart of our food system that doesn't work.”
Now, add a labor shortage. Those big plants are struggling to find workers, like many other industries.
That means more demand for smaller meat operations like Brian Winner, who runs Robert Winner Sons Inc. His facility in Darke County processes fewer than 100 animals per week, compared to larger facilities which can process thousands.
These days, Winner is busy - so busy he’s not booking any more slaughters for this year. He employs a workforce of nearly 30. Some of them work in the packing room getting smoked bacon ready to ship across the country. While others are at a table cutting sirloin steaks.
Winner said the facility has seen a 110% increase in business throughout the pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, there were so many farmers we couldn’t get. We can't slaughter [all the cattle] because we can only do so much,” Winner said. “Everybody flocked to us and all the other producers in Ohio or anywhere else across the United States.”
This backlog for processing caught the ear of federal and local governments.
The Biden administration recently invested more than $1 billion in grants and loans to support independent meat packers across the country. The administration is also introducing a policy aimed at increasing competition in the meat market.
In Ohio alone, $10 million in grants were set aside for small meat packers, like Brian Winner.
He’s one of dozens who have applied for the Ohio Meat Processing Grant. If he’s selected, he’ll use the money to expand his facility.
“We are moving more livestock, so of course we need more room. We're hoping that if we get any kind of money out of the grant, we're going to hopefully put on another freezer out to the back area in a cement slab so we have some more areas to work with.” Winner said.
But Hendrickson said, part of the solution to creating a more fair and competitive food system lies in stronger policy.
“I think this administration is working really hard to think creatively about meat and poultry processing and really make some changes. But I think one of the big gorillas in the room is if we don't really seriously contemplate antitrust, a lot of these smaller businesses aren't going to really make it.” Hendrickson said.
She said creating other forms of businesses such as medium operations or co-ops could be a solution.
“We've got to get something in that middle area that's going to provide some flexibility, some redundancy and that's, you know, going to offer choices for both farmers and consumers.” Hendrickson said.
The Ohio Cattlemen's Association agrees, the desire from consumers to buy beef directly from the farm has grown and advocates for more support for smaller meat processors.
“Since even before the pandemic, consumers were becoming more interested in buying beef locally,” Elizabeth Harsh, the executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association said. “This consumer trend is not expected to slow down any time soon.”
The association emphasizes federal and state support is key to meeting this growing demand.
Food reporter Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.