After the Covid Crush: Where Do Meat Processors Stand? |

After the Covid Crush: Where Do Meat Processors Stand?

Miles City Butcher Rocky Swanson at work at Butcher Block Specialties.
Photo by Molly Jacobson

In March of 2020, crowds flocked to grocery stores and picked the shelves clean. It’s good to know that in a pinch, Americans want real meat – but their panic-buying turned up the heat on an already bottlenecked part of the food supply chain, causing a surge for smaller, custom meat processors.

Now that it’s been a year, the store shelves have recovered. The price of beef is back to normal, and a hamburger no longer costs as much as a steak.

But is the COVID crush over for meat processors? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Where butcher shops are fairly plentiful, processors are mostly caught up. But smaller butchers, especially those in isolated places, are still struggling to keep up.

South Dakota rancher Heather Maude works with several butcher shops in her area through her direct-to-consumer meat business.

“When COVID hit last spring, it went from part-time to full-time almost overnight. It would be nothing to receive twenty-plus calls, texts, emails, social media messages every day, per day, for about three to four months straight,” says Maude.

“To be honest, we were just getting through it. It was a wonderful opportunity for our business; we are very thankful for the opportunity it presented, but it came with a really big increase in workload also, that wasn’t quite expected.”

Maude says, “Now, a year later, we’re fairly caught up. A lot of these butcher shops, they’re starting to see some relaxing in their schedules. We’re starting to pick up days within 4-6 weeks of when we call in some cases.”

For some of the smaller custom plants, that’s not the case.

“You call them, and they will state that no, they aren’t taking any names, they aren’t putting anybody on their books because they’re booked this entire calendar year and all of their customers have asked them to hold the same day for them the following year,” says Maude.

Unfortunately, this is the situation for the folks in eastern Montana. Processors like Rocky Swanson, owner of Miles City’s Butcher Block, are still struggling to keep up.

“We’ve just been busy. We’re turning stuff down that we can’t do, because we’re working six, seven days a week now,” says Swanson. “Nothing has really changed, we’re still going.”

Swanson says that before COVID, they were only booked out a week or two. Now, the wait time is a year or more, even though their production has doubled.

To combat the crush, some meat businesses have been expanding. High Five Meats, owned by the Hollenbeck family, has been providing locally raised meats to the Billings, Montana area since 2015. Previously, High Five Meats raised the animals but had them processed by other local butcher shops. In 2020, the Hollenbecks purchased C&K meats in Forsyth, Montana so they could process their animals themselves.

The future looks bright for the meat processing industry, but Sara Hollenbeck has concerns.

“There’s a lack of labor to support the growth,” says Hollenbeck.

They hope that with programs like Miles Community College’s new meat processing program, more people will take up the butchering trade.

Back in Miles City, Swanson plans take advantage of some available grants to increase their capacity. “We could do more; I’m planning to expand in the back garage here and hire some more help.” According to Swanson, it will be well worth it. The industry was booming before COVID, and Swanson doesn’t think the demand will diminish anytime soon.

“I think we’ll go another year, year and a half, maybe even two,” Swanson says. “A lot of our producers that are raising beef that would bring in five or six a year, they’re bringing 15 or 20 now, and they’ve got people asking for it.”

Everyone has had to adjust how they do things to keep up with the demand this past year. In addition to working more hours, Swanson says he’s had to prioritize.

“We’re going to quit doing pigs in June because they just get us so far behind,” he says. “There’s a lot of work in a hog, with the curing and everything.”

As to what we’ve learned as an industry, pretty much everyone agrees: having just four big packers isn’t working.

“We need more processors,” Swanson says. “There are some that are trying to get started, but boy, it’s a hassle – the regulations and all that.”

It’s not just the ag industry that’s learned a lesson, though – the entire country learned first-hand how incredibly volatile the meat market can be.

“A lot of people learned that you need to be proactive and prepared,” says Maude.

Feeding your family is a lot more complex than plucking hamburger off the shelf. Everyone learned that they actually do have a stake in the whole life cycle of their food products. According to Maude, her customers have been really excited to learn about and partake in local meats.

Sara Hollenbeck agrees, “We learned that people really want to support their communities and neighbors more than ever.”

“Back in the day, every small town had a butcher,” says Hollenbeck. She hopes that more people will support not only their local ranchers, but their local butchers as well.

It’s been a long year for everyone in ag, one that we aren’t likely to forget anytime soon. Producers and processors are hopeful that the lessons learned will lead to some positive changes in both the meat industry and consumer behavior.

It’s not just up to the guy buying the beef, though – there’s a lot producers can do to support their processors.

“You need to call your processor well in advance of when you need a date,” says Maude. “Take the time to learn what that time frame is that’s ideal with your processor. Is that one month, is that 6 months?”

A lot boils down to common courtesy, says Maude.

“You need to show up on time. You need to be clear with your cut sheets and communicate about the cuts you want, and you need to be timely with your payment, just like any other business. They aren’t going to want to do business with you for very long if you’re slow to pay them and slow to get your finished product out of their freezer, because that’s taking up space on their end.”

The COVID crush was a big wakeup call for Americans, bringing some much-needed clout to the tired “support your local rancher” mantra.

But Maude cautions us not to forget about processors.

“On behalf of the ranching and livestock industry, our business would just like to extend a real heart-felt thank you to all of the butcher shops for everything that they did to continue to work on behalf of their existing and their new customers, to get food into people’s homes,” says Maude. “We can’t do what we do without a butcher shop. It’s a critical point in the food supply chain…We try to raise a high-quality product, but that’s a critical step in keeping it high-quality, passing from our farm to our customer’s table. We’re always thankful for the hard work they put in day-in-day-out, but particularly this last year.”

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