For months, the Coronavirus pandemic halted much of the world’s economy, and the agricultural industry was no exception. It led to the shutdown of multiple meatpacking facilities across the United States, a result of virus outbreaks surging amongst employees in the processing plants.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the uncertainty led to consumers panic buying and stocking up on meat, leaving many cases and shelves empty. Grocery stores struggled to restock, limiting the amount of meat shoppers could purchase in order to slow the hoarding and maintain a level of storage. In early May, beef and pork sales in the United States were down by about 40% from the previous years due to limited store availability.
Though the pandemic showed some industry volatility, it also revealed a “silver lining” at the end of the tunnel. There was a considerable shift to consumers buying meat directly from producers. On June 30, U.S. Representatives Dusty Johnson (R-SD) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) introduced the Direct Interstate Retail Exemption for Certain Transactions (DIRECT) Act to the House of Representatives. This bill’s implementation would allow for state-inspected meat to be bought and sold across state lines directly from producers. Farmers and ranchers would be able to market to retailers or directly to consumers.
Moreover, the emergence of Facebook groups created new ways for farmers and ranchers to market their products in this unprecedented time. Specifically, Farm Direct Wisconsin is a Facebook group formed back in April and hosts over 50,000 members, both producers and consumers, to help farmers sell their products.
I discovered this group while listening to an episode of the Ag News Daily podcast. Rae Ann Scherr created the groups after recognizing the impact COVID-19 had on the agriculture and food industry, and she identified a dire need for relationships between producers and consumers.
“Farmers are hurting in Wisconsin,” Scherr wrote in the about section on the Facebook page. “I know there [are] a lot of people who would love to buy products directly from a farm, but don’t know how or where to look. If you are a farmer and have products to sell, list your city and what you have to offer.”
An additional positive outcome drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic could be further consumer appreciation of the food supply chain. Jayson Lusk, head of the Department of Agriculture and Economics at Purdue University, said he expects that many barriers of entry for the packing industry could be broken down, according to the Iowa Farmer Today newspaper. This would open the door for smaller processors to enter the playing field and assume the role of supplying meat to consumers. More farmers are merely looking to sell to consumers, and more consumers are looking to buy directly from those producers.
With an increase in demand for reducing human contact during a height in the spread of infectious pathogens, many industries are looking towards automation. However, Lusk also said this would be a difficult tool to utilize in the meatpacking industry due to the various sizes of cattle and other livestock, proving some security for agriculture workers.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has significantly impacted the agricultural industry. Many challenges became apparent, but it still revealed a silver lining and the emergence of possibilities for producers to move forward.
We may see new policies emerge in response to possible volatility in the industry. Still, new trends in producer-consumer interactions may have the capacity to direct agriculture towards a positive future.
Many meat lockers around the country are already backlogged, with slaughter dates reaching through most of 2021. Will we continue to see that trend continue even when we see things return to “normal?”