Coronavirus: MA Farmers Prepare For Meat Shortages

Jimmy Bentley

FOXBOROUGH, MA — Farmers in Massachusetts are preparing for meat shortages stemming from the new coronavirus pandemic.

Large-scale meat suppliers across the United States have faced COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, twenty workers have died and nearly 4,200 meatpackers at 115 processing plants across the country tested positive for the new coronavirus.

In Massachusetts, grocery store chains like Wegman's, Costco and Roche Brothers have faced meat shortages. Costco's shortages have been so severe that the chain has had to limit meat purchases to three items per customer.

As large-scale meat operations face outbreaks, more and more people have turned to small, family-run farms to get their beef, pork, chicken and eggs. And with that has come record sales at several farms across the state, including at Revival Farm in Middleboro.

Revival co-owner Kathryn Shepard said she forecasted modest growth for 2020 over 2019. But after the coronavirus outbreak, sales went through the roof, and she's struggled to keep up with demand.

"We have surpassed almost all of our sales goals so far and are having inventory shortages," Shepard said. "It takes significant future planning to produce your supply chain. What we have is what we planned for 11 months ago."

Shepard said several products sold out until the next time she can get a processing date at the slaughterhouse, Meatworks in Westport. She said she has a variety of other cuts of beef, pork and chicken, but those aren't always the most popular.

"Maybe people will be a little more daring and be willing to try some of the less popular cuts," she said. "All cuts are delicious if you just take the time to find the right recipe for them. Even though we don't have chicken breasts right now, we got drumsticks."

Terry Lawton owns Oake Knoll Farms in Foxborough and has about 20 cows. She sells beef, milk and cheese at her farm stand and also orders eggs from other farms.

So far, Lawton hasn't experienced shortages of beef or dairy products, but she has struggled with getting packaging and fresh eggs delivered.

"It's really hard to get eggs right now,"Lawton told Patch. "I also need to order three weeks instead of one week in advance on packaging."

But what most worries Massachusetts farmers is the potential of an outbreak at a local slaughterhouse. This has significantly affected other parts of the U.S., including Illinois, where plant closures from COVID-19 outbreaks have bottlenecked the supply chain.

All livestock farmers are required to send animals to a USDA regulated slaughterhouse, so any interruption could put farmers in a difficult position, said Meg Riley, the executive director at Soule Homestead, a nonprofit farm that leases land to local animal farmers.

"The farmers now don't have anywhere for their meat to be slaughtered," Riley told Patch. "It might not be a big deal to us if a chicken doesn't go to the slaughter house a week before it's supposed to, but these farms aren't set up to process at this scale."

Animals processed at these facilities are only taken in at certain weights, and to continue feeding these animals requires not only space, but money.

Riley said there are farmers who have had to make a heartbreaking choice because they cannot afford to keep the animal.

"Even the smallest disruption causes a major domino effect, which has led to farmers making a difficult choice that they have to kill and not process livestock,"Riley said.

Fortunately, Shepard and Lawton have not had to face this reality.

“We are fortunate that we raise all our animals on pasture," Shepard said. "We don't have some of the space restrictions that other farms have that use a traditional farm setting."

As challenges arise, though, several Massachusetts farmers are looking for a silver lining. Shepard said she is confident in the slaughterhouse she uses. She said she's been to Meatworks four or five times since the beginning of the pandemic, and they always wear masks, use no-contact payment and take a number of other safety precautions.

"It’s obviously something that we are concerned with, but these places we use seem to be putting in the effort with CDC guidelines," Shepard said.

As for Lawton, she said it's been encouraging to witness the number of people driving to the farmstand to get meat, cheese and other products. She's hopeful this will continue even after the pandemic is over.

"Our hope is that we can maintain the relationship and that people recognize the quality is so much higher than it is at the grocery store," Lawton said. "We definitely appreciate our customers, and we can definitely handle more."

This article originally appeared on the Foxborough Patch