Many people have asked how we (our farm) is doing in such unprecedented times. And, to be honest, I feel a twinge of guilt. Because, yes, we are essential workers – we feed people. And, it turns out, that’s a pretty important thing.
Not to mention, I can’t just turn off my lactating milk cows or ask my pigs to feed themselves – difficult when you want to take a vacation, but helpful when you need to eat.
We can’t claim unemployment but we can keep working. And we are so incredibly grateful for that.
This month, we ran into our first COVID-19 snafu – until this point, we have only felt the “good” effects of a shelter-in-place and social distancing policies.
People cooking from home and hoarding food from the grocery stores increased the demand for food that we produce – whole, nutrient-dense, healthy foods.
Back in January, we had scheduled some beef and pork to be finished this month with the butcher date of April 14th.
We got a call last week that our processor could take the beef animals but the pigs would be delayed another 10 days (until April 24th). We were disappointed (as were our customers!) but we could live with that.
Until they contacted us again (today) to notify us that they are receiving semi-loads of pork and beef from another facility that need to be processed to keep up with the meat shortage due to COVID-19.
The soonest they could process our hogs would be May 26, potentially May 19, if they could gain enough traction on their end. We called another processor nearby that we’ve frequently worked with to see what they’re schedule looked like – they said they could squeeze us in May 27 or June 3.
They described their facility as “bursting at the seams” to keep up with demand.
Obviously, an additional 5-6 weeks was pretty upsetting for us. Every day that the pigs stay beyond their scheduled butcher date costs us quite a bit in feed and work. Unfortunately, it also leads to fattier, overweight animals and more waste during the processing.
Ultimately, this hurts our customer because they will, essentially, be paying for heavier weights on hogs but not yielding much more meat (due to increased body fat rather than meat or muscle) – they will be “over-finished” and meat quality will suffer as a result.
Typically, spring is a slow time of year for livestock processing. We watch out for the busy fair season and fall harvesting.
But, because of the pandemic and the state of emergency enacted, many butcher counters at local grocery stores are closed, as are larger meat packing plants around the country.
Employee illnesses are forcing the closure of these large plants with animals still needing to be processed and distributed to keep up with the increased demand of the retail market in the U.S.
There is an even more unfortunate side to this story – the pandemic hasn’t been kind to farmers, as most would think. Commodities of all kinds have crashed in value as wholesale and international markets have collapsed.
For example, dairy commodity futures were forecasted to be in the $18-$20 per hundredweight range for producers this year. Many producers did not buy margin protection insurance because of these projected higher prices.
Without large buyers (think schools, restaurants, etc.), dairy farmers are currently receiving $9-$13 per hundredweight (100# of milk, equivalent to 12.5 gallons of milk) from their co-ops.
For many farmers, this is too much to bear after years of depressed prices and we are now seeing a flood of bankruptcies and closures of dairy farms. There are only so many farms that can absorb the dairy cows so most are being sold as cull cows (ground beef for hamburger in retail stores, Big Macs, etc).
This crisis is also contributing to almost every processing facility being overwhelmed at the moment. Semi-loads of animals are arriving daily at these smaller facilities to attempt to keep grocery stores stocked with meat.
This is a difficult moment in agriculture – what is the lesson?
I’m sure there are a multitude but I’d like to highlight the fact that food security is a finicky beast.
I sincerely hope life returns to sense of “normalcy” in the near future. But, I also hope that we look at our food with fresh eyes.
Food security is not found in large chain grocery stores, with widespread distribution networks, and their seemingly continuous supply of fresh food. We know now that supply can evaporate very quickly.
Food security starts at home.
In our freezers, in our backyards and in our pantries.
We cannot live entirely without grocery stores – true. But, we can make great strides to empower ourselves and take responsibility for our family’s food security.
Maybe prioritizing spending money on buying meat in bulk to stock the freezer doesn’t sound so crazy after all. Or, buying gallons of maple syrup during maple syrup season to stock up for the whole year. Or, finally starting that backyard flock of chickens for eggs. Or, buying all of your blueberries during the height of blueberry season.
It’s a crazy idea called eating with the seasons. Sourcing food in your local bio-region and taking advantage of the abundance when it naturally arrives.
Heck, maybe learning to hunt or fish or growing a few perennial food plants to stock your own freezer isn’t such a bad idea.
I shy away from the “prepper” idea that we need to have months of canned goods stowed away in our basements for a future time. But, I love the idea of becoming more involved in our annual food production, storage and preparation.
We are, personally, in a privileged position, but we’ve also spent most of our adult lives acquiring skills to feed ourselves.
Hunting and butchering and raising livestock, yes. But, also – rendering lard & tallow, baking homemade sourdough bread, canning tomatoes, jamming berries for the year, making our own yogurt, kombucha, butter & buttermilk (which we freeze, too!), heck, we’ve even made a few cheeses over the years!
Honestly, we have tons more to learn. We weren’t raised Amish, after all.
Dan isn’t adept at fishing. I have no patience or talent for gardening. We could both refine our cooking skills. The list goes on.
But, start with something.
Anything that steps towards building your family’s food security. And try to help out your local farmers, too! 😉
P.S. – We finally found a butcher (who we also love!) who was willing to get our 10 hogs in next week! Hooray!
P.P.S. – All photos are scenes from our farm & family during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order