I have said this before, and so has everyone else, but these are some crazy times. One place where we visibly see the strangeness, and in ways, the severity, of this pandemic is the grocery store. I, like many of you I would guess, have only one type of experience with the shelves in the grocery store being empty and that is when there is the slight possibility of snow coming here in the south and the milk and bread are wiped out. Insert all the funny jokes and memes about how silly stocking up on milk and bread are right here.
But during this COVID-19 pandemic, many more items than just milk and bread have been out of stock. Pretty much everything has gone through phases of being completely empty. This is where our farm and being farmers has intersected with this pandemic – when the meat shelves started to empty out.
That first week, when grocery stores were getting cleared out of EVERYTHING, I can’t tell you how many times Brandon’s phone was ringing asking how our buying club worked and more about the meat we sold. People who had never bought from us were calling in a panic. Please know there is no judgement in that statement. Each of us have had different realities of this season scare us and being able to feed ourselves and our family is definitely something one may worry about. But, this was the moment when Brandon and I had to stop and think. We reminded ourselves that our first priority is to provide meat for our family, so we needed to stop, think and make sure we had enough back to feed our family for the coming weeks and possibly months. Then, once we had enough, what was available to sell and how?
This is when we made the difficult decision to stop all our sales, except to our loyal customers who buy from us on a regular basis. I never in a million years would have thought we would be turning away people from buying out meat. We are almost always searching for a larger base of customers. It’s pretty simple – more customers equals more profit. And with a slim profit margin that comes with farming, every little bit helps! But we felt that our responsibility at this time was to supply those who had already, pre-pandemic, made the decision to source the meat for their family through us. (More on this decision and what decisions we, Bowers Farm, are having to make moving forward coming in a blog next week.)
The reality of meat shortages in the grocery store has not only brought out people who would never think to buy meat from us because it is not convenient enough for them, but it has also brought a lot of focus to the fragility of our nation’s meat industry as a whole. Many in the world of sustainable farming have been saying for years that our food industry is not sustainable. The meat on the grocery store shelves has provided us with a false sense of security. I don’t think any of these individuals, including us, thought that it would be a pandemic to shed light on the lack of the industries reliability, but this is where we are.
Pausing here for some background information. You may not know this, I didn’t before being introduced to this world, but many farms are contracted out. It may be a pig farm that is run by a family, but the pigs are actually owned by the producer (i.e Tyson, Smithfield, etc). This is true of all types of farms, not just pigs. This means the family is contracted as the growers. This may be helpful to know and understand for this next bit.
One reason the fragility of the market has been uncovered is because of the closing of meat processing plants. Another is restaurants having limited dinning and reduced sales, so their demand is not as great from their meat suppliers.
So, if I’m a producer and there is no place to take the animals my grower has raised (no demand from the buyer and no place to process it), what am I going to do? There are farms, even close to us, where the producer has come in to euthanize entire shipments of the animal. Instead of picking them up to take to process, they’re being disposed of. Farmers are reaching out to other farmers, and not just other contracted ones, but ones like ours, to see if anyone has room to take even just a few of their animals. These growers know the alternative is the animal being wasted. And regardless of a farm’s farming practices, confinement or pasture raised for example, no farmer wants to see an animal wasted like this.
A few summers back, Brandon and I were able to hear Meredith Leigh speak at a conference we attended. She’s the author of The Ethical Meat Handbook. During her session, she said, “The way to fully honor the life of the animal, it deserves a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook.” Since then, we have held tightly to this saying and mindset as farmers. It is something we constantly share on tours of our farm and when speaking to individuals and groups. Now, we may disagree with some farmers on what makes a “good life” (feedlot vs rotational grazing for example) but I think we would all agree that the state of the meat industry now, and what is happening right now on farms across America, is far from a good death.
These are, without a doubt, unprecedented times. Our meat industry, and really our food industry as a whole, has been a broken system for a long time. Sadly, we aren’t going to fix it overnight or even in the next few months. But if one thing that comes out of this pandemic in regards to agriculture is a reality check for our nation and how we look at our food sources, that will be a silver lining. If we as communities begin to value our local producers and begin to decentralize our meat production, maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to honor the lives of the many animals that have been euthanized for no other reason other than they are taking up space.