Toward Lasting Change

July 1, 2020

With numerous plant closures due to COVID-19 and the resulting disruption in the national meat supply chain, meat processing has been a fixture in the news cycle for months now. Inevitably these national disruptions trickle down to the local level, and last week the Seattle Times ran a front page story about our local meat processing system. Local meat on the front page? You better believe we noticed!

The Seattle Times story profiles businesses up and down the regional meat supply chain and hits on some of the ways the national meat processing crisis due to COVID-19 is starting to impact our local system. We, like many local farmers, have seen a surge of interest in clean, high quality food grown and processed close to home. Something is seriously wrong with a system that sees empty shelves in the grocery store and a food bank line down the block paired with farmers euthanizing animals they can’t get butchered and can’t afford to feed any longer. It is our great hope that a positive change to come out of the pandemic is that more people rediscover the value of a localized food system and the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal. Thank you for being part of that change!

While the increased interest in local meat is a wonderful thing, it is a shock to the system. Sourcing young animals has become more difficult, and many butchers are booked out much farther into the future than they typically are, making it challenging to get meat in the freezer. It will take time for the system to adjust, and we all have to read the tea leaves to determine how much of this change is permanent and how much will evaporate as previous patterns reassert themselves.

Concurrently, the reduced capacity at the mega-industrial scale has led to our small regional meat processors taking on industrial contracts that can’t be fulfilled at the large facilities, as it is much simpler to butcher several hundred beef exactly the same way for a large contract than having different instructions from a multitude of small farms marketing several animals at a time.

Further stressing the regional system are new protocols put in place to reduce the COVID-19 risk for staff – employees spaced further apart, which reduces capacity – and additional cleaning, physical barriers between workers, etc. Some processors are also claiming their employees make more money on unemployment than they do at the butcher shop and they have had to raise wages significantly to entice employees back to work. All these things slow the process and/or add expense, which are then passed along to the farmer.

Where does it leave us? Time will tell. Disturbance in any system, natural or manmade, creates space for something new to germinate. Our hopeful hearts are praying that what rises is a more robust, diversified local food system that can continue to provide healthy food through any disruption, raised in a manner that sustains the natural environment and breathes new life into our rural communities. Are you with us?

Martin Frederickson

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