Coronavirus Has Been A Boon For Small Wisconsin Meat Producers. But Will It Last?
Meat shortages and safety concerns have driven shoppers away from big-box stores and into small mom-and-pop businesses. This sign informs customers at Woodman's in Madison that the product is limited. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

As meat giants like Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield warn of dire meat shortages for big-box stores, local Wisconsin farmers are enjoying the demand.

Local livestock farmers, meat processors, and meat markets have been able to find some degree of a bright side amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Outbreaks in large-scale meat processing facilities due to poor worker conditions have disrupted the national supply chain. Meat giant Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad in the New York Times painting an ominous picture, proclaiming “the food supply chain is breaking.” 

But the effect has been the opposite for small producers throughout Wisconsin. 

The pandemic has helped introduce consumers to healthy, sustainable food grown and processed just miles away from their own houses. Meat shortages and safety concerns have driven shoppers away from big-box stores and into small mom-and-pop businesses.

“After everyone stopped buying toilet paper in bulk, they started buying meat in bulk,” said Kallie Jo Coates, who works at her father’s small butcher shop, Harry Hansen’s Meat Service, in rural Racine County.

Meat availability at chain grocery stores is expected to shrink by nearly a third, resulting in a price surge by as much as 20 percent, according to a market analysis by CoBank. A fear of infection has depressed consumer confidence, making people leery of shopping with potentially dozens of other people at supermarkets.

“COVID’s a terrible thing, clearly, but there have definitely been some silver linings here,” said Danielle Endvick, communications director with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “That’s just a phrase that keeps coming to mind — silver lining — on so many issues we’ve been working on here at the Farmers Union, especially on the local food front.”

At Just Local Food, a co-op in Eau Claire, meat sales have skyrocketed by 77 percent, contributing to an overall sales increase of 38 percent, according to shopkeeper Nik Novak. 

“Because our local supply lines remain strong, we have not experienced the out-of-stocks, the panic-buying, or major price increases imposed by distributors and other corporate middlemen,” Novak said. “When we run out of something, I can call farmer friends who live 15, 25, 40 miles away and have our shelves fully stocked in a matter of hours or within a couple of days.”

Whether the increased business will last remains to be seen. 

“I think it in a lot of ways come down to customers, what the demand is,” said John Sheffy, who owns Almond-based Liberation Farmers and helps run the nearby Stevens Point winter farmers market.

Sheffy acknowledged consumers might pay more for local food, but said he hopes they realize “it’s probably not sustainable to buy turkey for 99 cents a pound, or pork for a buck or two a pound.”

That’s not to say that it is sustainable, or feasible, for a massive shift of consumers to local producers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified vast swaths of rural Wisconsin, and pockets in urban areas throughout the state, as food deserts, or areas without easy supermarket access. Especially in urban areas, those food deserts may extend to local producers as well.

Natalie Vanderperren, a 38-year-old case manager from Green Bay, leans heavily on ground beef in her cooking. At her usual chain grocery store, she said, the ground beef is now almost $8 per pound. She has nearby local butchers that are cheaper than the grocery store, but she said she has had trouble actually getting ground beef because it sells out so quickly.

“I think it’s the culture of Wisconsin, especially,” Vanderperren said. “We’re very meat and potatoes.”

A possible solution to make sure everyone has access to meat, Vanderperren said, would be for families to have “meatless Mondays” or to try alternative diets.

“Major disruptions like COVID-19 are necessary in that they expose so many systemic weaknesses — health care, economic scale, economic inequalities, geographical inequalities, etc.,” Novak said. “I am in favor of any and all such educational opportunities.  Local food is a national security issue.”

Coates said Harry Hansen’s, with a staff of about 15, has been working at its absolute capacity throughout the pandemic, but it is still having trouble keeping products in stock. Typically, anything that’s not sold is put into frozen storage so it doesn’t spoil on the shelf; now, the freezers are practically empty.

Harry Hansen’s also supplements its in-house processed meats with products that are shipped in from bigger, corporate processors and then sold at the front counter, Coates said. The shortages due to the interrupted national supply chain have resulted in some price hikes for those products, Coates said.

Nami Moon Farms, a local farm in Custer, recently compared the meat industry to a naval fleet. In the metaphor, the corporate, large-scale producers are aircraft carriers — they provide the most firepower with their huge factories and extensive supply chains, but they’re also slow, hulking behemoths that can’t easily make minute adjustments. The local producers are fast-attack boats, able to adjust and provide help in smaller spaces.

In that regard, one thing has been made clear: The two halves of the industry need each other to survive, or else “we see things breaking down” when crises such as coronavirus happen, Coates said.

“I think there will be some people to some extent that will continue (after the pandemic) with this ideal of ‘buy small, buy local,’” Coates said. “But I still think there is that consumer — and I don’t know what that majority level is — where what they really want to be able to do is go to the grocery store and buy convenient and cheap food.”

This story has been updated with new sales-increase figures for Just Local Food.