A recent survey of livestock producers shows that Minnesota has a growing local livestock industry, but a persistent challenge for small and mid-sized livestock producers is limited small-scale meat and poultry processing.
A group of organizations including Minnesota Farmers Union, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and Land Stewardship Project sent a survey to livestock producers in mid-May to learn about how producers were affected by COVID-19 and plant closures.
Survey results, largely from farmers who ‘direct-market’ their livestock to consumers, restaurants and food cooperatives, confirm what ag groups and others have known for a long time: Family farmers are experiencing a shortage of local livestock processing – made worse by COVID-19 plant closures – and this is limiting their farm businesses. The survey was conducted May 15-26 and was sent to participating groups’ members.
Well over half of the 111 survey respondents reported that there were too few livestock processing operations to meet farmer needs for local meat processing, while only 17 percent reported that they did have adequate access. Some 64 percent said processing was inadequate for their business even before the pandemic. And a majority of respondents, 54 percent, indicated they would raise more livestock if more processing was available.
“Increasingly, consumers want fresh, locally grown and processed meat, because of its great taste and nutritional value,” said Theresa Keaveny, Executive Director, Sustainable Farming Association. “COVID-19 has made meat supplies from large plants less reliable due to plant closures. Minnesota has an excellent opportunity to help farmers, rural communities and consumers by expanding our local meat processing facilities.
“This was a problem before, and the COVID-19 pandemic-related plant disruptions have made the problem more acute,” she said. “It’s time for a bold, public investment in local meat processing.”
The majority of respondents direct-market or sell at sale barns or auctions and reported that processors of all types – USDA, “equal to” and Custom-Exempt – are booked out for months. Said one respondent, “We were lucky to have already booked fall appointments. But due to soaring demand for processing, I’m already booked for fall 2021 which would have been unthinkable in years past.”
The survey also revealed that 65 percent of respondents have seen an increase in demand for their products. “Consumers are more aware of how important buying and supporting local (food) really is,” said one farmer. Notably, only 9.5 percent have experienced an increase in sale price, though some who were surveyed reported market disruption causing cash flow problems this summer.
The lack of competitive markets and concentration in the meatpacking industry has been a decades-long problem, one laid bare when workers became ill with COVID-19, forcing shutdowns of major plants and heightening community spread. The resulting backups created more demand at local processors and reduced available slaughter dates for producers who regularly rely on these plants.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has provided resources for producers and small-scale processors, recognizing that the pandemic and large packing plant closures have put pressure on small plants and the farmers they serve, including by expediting approvals for new ‘equal to’ state-inspected plants, moving them up from ‘Custom Exempt,’ and fast-tracking grant funding to increase slaughter capacity at small grants.
”We recommend a continuation of these MDA programs even after the pandemic subsides,” Keaveny said.
The survey results also suggested a need for greater investment in meat inspection and expanded opportunities for workforce development training. In addition, the survey respondents encouraged livestock producers to build proactive relationships with local processors.