A report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture highlights just how difficult it is for many small- and medium-sized livestock producers to access the meat processing they need.
The University’s Livestock Processing Survey was sent out in May, so as to capture some of the effects of COVID-19 on the market. At that time, COVID outbreaks in some parts of the state had hit local processing plants particularly hard, limiting capacity.
The results, finally released last week, paint a dire picture of a market that was overtaxed even before COVID. Out of 11 farmers who responded to the survey, 64% said that processing capacity was already inadequate for their business.
Now, just 17% of farmers report they have adequate access to processing facilities, with the majority of respondents saying that processors of all types are booked out for months. Astoundingly, one processor reported they are booked out through fall of 2021.
The lack of access to processing comes at a time when consumer demand for locally raised meats from small producers is growing — and could grow even larger. According to the survey, 65% of respondents have seen increased demand.
A majority of the survey’s respondents told the University of Minnesota that if processing was available, they would definitely expand their operations. However, with capacity as limited as it has become, many farmers have instead been forced to cull their herds.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that the state needs to encourage facilities to stay open and keep employees working. Drazkowski said that the best way to do that would be to work with each individual facility on a customer plan.
“I think that will see better results than a dictatorial approach,” he said.
State Rep. Jeff Brand, who serves as vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said that he and the committee had heard extensively about the issue even before the pandemic hit. That shortage of capacity hurts small farmers the most.
“A lot of our farmers couldn’t sell the hogs for free, because they were having such a hard time getting people to process them,” Brand shared.
Brand said that in rural areas throughout the state, the number of small processors used to be much higher but declined along with the number of small farmers. While the number of small, family-owned farms has again begun to increase, processing capacity hasn’t yet returned.
The issue has only been exacerbated by COVID due to the series of outbreaks at processing facilities. While reports of outbreaks have slowed in recent weeks, he said that’s largely because they are now operating at reduced capacity.
When it comes to the state’s meatpacking plants, Brand said much more needs to be done to protect the safety of workers. He attributed the early outbreaks to a failure on the part of many plant owners to ensure adequate protections.
“We have to do better on making sure employees are safe,” he said.
In next year’s legislative session, Brand said that he hoped an agreement could come about to support smaller producers. That’s a top priority for Stu Lourey, director of government affairs for the Minnesota Farmers Union.
Lourey touted the federal Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants (RAMP-UP) Act, introduced by House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-MN, and co-sponsored by local Rep. Angie Craig, D-Eagan, as a potential model.
Under that bill, introduced in Congress last month, a new federal program would be created to provide funding for existing plants to make facility upgrades and as well as planning grants to help plants meet federal guidelines, so they can sell their meat across state lines.
“Amidst disruptions in the food supply chain due to COVID-19, our farmers and local processors have continued to innovate to get safe food on the table for millions of Americans,” Craig said in a prepared statement. “By continuing to support our local meat processors, we are safeguarding our food supply and stimulating rural economies.”
Lourey said that for the system to work efficiently for farmers across the state, a different processing model is needed. He said the consolidation toward larger plants has badly hindered the system’s ability to cope with the stress of COVID.
However, he noted that a major challenge for meat processors is that the capital costs associated with getting into the business are so high. As a result, he says that public investment is needed to avoid market distortions.
“What we’ve seen, and what Farmers Union has known for awhile, is that when the processing system is too consolidated it becomes brittle and vulnerable to disruption,” he said. ““We need a strong and sustained investment in local meat processing.”
Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read said that in addition to providing additional funding, difficulties with the licensing and regulatory system also need to be dealt with. He also said the industry is dealing with a major labor shortage.
“The last meat processing program in Minnesota closed down years ago, and now there’s not a vocational program dedicated to meat processing,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to find the skilled labor you need for those facilities.”
When farmers can’t get an animal processed within a certain period of time, Read said that the meat can quickly lose its quality. As a result, small- and medium-sized farmers can have a hard time bringing their best quality product to market.
“There’s a sweet spot for when an animal should be processed for its best result,” he said. “If you can’t have those animal processed during that period, it isn’t as good.”