Problems at big meat processing plants mean opportunity for independent butchers.
Rising Spring Meats, a small operation in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, used to butcher about 20 animals a week.
But since coronavirus outbreaks at large packers disrupted the national supply chain last month, shop owner Jay Young has ramped up to 30 a week.
“It’s exhilarating,” he said.
Independent butchers, already in high demand, are seeing even more interest as farmers rush to sell directly to consumers, often for the first time.
“Beef numbers are up more, percentagewise, than any other,” said Young, who has clients coming from as far as Maryland and New York.
Young has been moving quarters, halves and whole animals, as well as doing some retail cuts, and he’s booked with work into August.
Anthony O’Neil, a Red Devon beef producer who also runs a butchering business in Clarion County, Pennsylvania, has seen an increase in demand for burgers and roasts, as well as specialty items like jerky and sausage.
And his usual competition, large-scale grocery stores like Walmart, has not been able to keep up with the demand, which has helped him.
“We keep things rolling,” he said.
Likewise, Bur-Pak Family Foods, a butcher shop in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, has a full schedule into September. Owner Nelson Burkholder said he’s used to scheduling orders a week in advance.
Bur-Pak processes beef, pork and venison, and Burkholder can barely keep up with the demand.
“Staffing is a problem,” he said. “We’re just turning stuff away. We decided what we’ll do a week and then go from there.”
He has 18 employees, but most of them are seasonal. This time of year, he typically has five or six. He recently hired three additional temp workers, and he’s looking for more.
Young is also hiring and in the process of training new employees.
Though butcher shops have much smaller staffs than mega packing plants, anyone at the business could still pose a health risk by unknowingly bringing COVID-19 to work.
“One of the hardest items for any employer to address is human behavior outside of work,” said Jonathan Campbell, a Penn State Extension meat specialist. “It is important that our critical employees take this as seriously outside of the workplace as they do while at work.”
Young said farmers should be understanding that processors are doing the best they can to keep up with demand, and they should plan ahead by searching for processors before they start feeding or finishing their livestock for slaughter.
If the farm’s regular meat processor is booked weeks or months in advance, Campbell suggests they work with a nutritionist to slow that animal down through reduced feed rations.
“Waiting until the animal is ready for harvesting is not a good time to start thinking about where to take the animal,” he said.
O’Neil was hoping to expand his business and become USDA certified with the help of a small processor grant made available through the 2019 PA Farm Bill. The expansion would have provided more opportunity for farmers to send cull cows that he could process as beef hot dogs for retail sale at farm stands. But that expansion is on hold until the pandemic subsides.
Most of Pennsylvania’s meat processing plants are now running at capacity, or close to it, so it’s not clear if meat shops’ gains will last long term.
But small butchering operations are eager to pick up the slack for the big packers.
“Look who soaked it up,” Burkholder said. “We stepped up and did it.”