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Local meat producers feeling the demand

  • Rocky Meadow Farm in Francestown has seen a rise in demand with people looking to stock their freezers in the event there’s a meat shortage. Photo by Wayne LeClair

  • Rocky Meadow Farm in Francestown has been raising Galloway Cattle since 1992, and with people looking to stock their freezers in the event of a meat shortage owner Wayne LeClair has seen a spike in demand. Photo by Wayne LeClair

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/17/2020 4:31:48 PM

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in early March, the availability of meat has been a concern for both consumers and suppliers.

Early on, grocery store cases were bare as people panic bought to stock up on things like ground beef and chicken in fear of the unknown, while in the last month issues with meat processing plants around the country either due to COVID-19 outbreaks or staffing have led to reports that the country will soon face a shortage in product.

Unable to find what they need or concerns about where meat is coming from have led residents to flock to local farms for their steaks and chicken breasts, but hiccups in the process have led to low inventory for some meat farmers.

Demand

Beth LeClair, who owns Barrett Hill Farm in Mason with her husband Matt, said they have seen an increase in sales for all their products – beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

She said their customer base is loyal and have seen an influx of new customers. Through conversations with customers, Beth said that the overwhelming response is that they are looking for more meat to stock their freezers.

Already with a high demand for Barrett Hill products, Beth said last week “we have a low inventory of meat and people are still looking for our stuff.”

As of last week, Beth said beef was the most sought after and coupled with delays in processing, the stockpile isn’t as high as they’d like going into the beginning of summer. The amount of pork and chicken is still adequate to meet the demand and she said “we’ll catch up in the next few weeks.”

When Wayne LeClair, owner of Rocky Meadow Farm in Francestown, looks at his seven chest freezers, it’s apparent that things have changed, with only about 12 pieces of meat among them. Unfortunately the reality for the Rocky Meadow owner is that “there’s no way I can meet everyone’s demand.”

He still urges people to reach out, as there is the ability to fill orders for ground beef by the pound and their 30-pound variety packs, because as Wayne put it, “I hope to catch up, but it’s hard.”

He said they typically process about 12 to 18 cattle per year and “normally that’s been plenty, but now it’s a totally different demand.”

Wendy Juchnevics-Freeman, owner of Sleepy Brook Farm in New Ipswich, said like other farms, there has been an increase in demand for their chicken and pork.

“We probably have more demand coming up this summer than we’ll have product,” she said.

And in the meat farming industry, there’s not an easy fix. “You don’t plant a seed one day and have pork chops in the freezer,” Juchnevics-Freeman said.

Juchnevics-Freeman said they’re a little low on chicken right now and are limiting what people can buy through their online ordering to ensure they have enough for CSA members.

“We’re really trying to manage it, but people might have to wait a week,” she said.

Issues

With increased sales, the need for more animals to be processed is more present than ever Beth said. But it’s not as simple as calling up a slaughterhouse to bring in a new batch of animals.

Due to the limited amount of processing plants available to farms in the area, Beth said they book their appointments two years in advance, but those have been postponed recently, waiting an extra two weeks for their much needed time slot.

With processing appointments pushed out, Beth said they have to feed their animals longer than usual and that means more costs.

She said they process about three to four cows each month during the summer and two a month in the winter. The plan is to have 800 chickens processed this summer and 24 pigs are set to be shipped out next week.

Wayne has been raising Galloway Cattle since 1992, but doesn’t remember a year where things have been so up in the air.

“This is the first time we’ve faced this sort of challenge,” Wayne said.

He uses three processing plants, but through conversations with those companies he has come to realize that all of them are behind due to the loss of employees. Not necessarily because of coronavirus, but that employees of the businesses are making more on unemployment and decided to stay home while the extra benefits are in place.

Wayne said one appointment was canceled because “they were unable to handle it,” while others, which are scheduled almost a year in advance, are taking much longer.

“It’s getting harder to get appointments,” he said. “And I can’t be sure the appointments I have will be kept.”

He said a typical turn around for his three to four head of cattle is two weeks. Now it’s taking more like four and even when it does come in, hopefully at the end of June, most of it has already been pre-sold.

With the extra time added, Wayne said he is fortunate that his cattle are all grass fed and it doesn’t come with an increased cost, but as the dry summer months approach fresh grass on the 270-acre farm will be harder to come by as he has to move the larger herd around to different pastures more often.

Juchnevics-Freeman said the biggest issue facing local farms in the processing piece.

“They have been overrun with first time farmers trying to get appointments,” she said. “It’s been very difficult to get an appointment, but we’ve had some success because we have longstanding relationships. We’re not getting the appointments we want though, we have to wait.”

She said pork processing is typically scheduled six months in advance, while they bring about a dozen chickens every week during the summer months. She said they’re okay right now and are just trying to be flexible with the appointment dates they get.

Shift in thinking

With increased demand, Beth said people are realizing the importance of having local farms that produce food. She hopes it will continue.

“That’s the beauty of having a farm so close and local, we have food for people,” she said. “We are so passionate about what we do. We want to feed people.”

When Juchnevics-Freeman started going to farmer’s markets seven years ago, there was a big push for local meat, but over the last few years she has seen a decrease in those going to markets. But so far this year, she has seen a resurgence and believes it is in direct response to the buy local movement that is coming out of the pandemic.

In what he feels is a direct response to the current situation, Wayne said some have inquired about purchasing live animals to raise on their own property and hopes to cut down his group of 36 by 10 or so in the next month.

Like his farming counterparts, Wayne hopes the situation will continue to shift the conversation about local food.

“Maybe it’s made people realize the food chain can be interrupted and people will be looking long and hard about where their food comes from,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a realization that local food is better, not just in taste, but better for you.”




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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