Meat processors, producers tapping networks to meet increased demand
MOUNT AIRY, Md. — When Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order late in the morning of March 30, Mickey Wagner, third generation member of the family-owned Wagner Meats and Mt. Airy Meat Locker, and his retail store staff braced for the afternoon onslaught of customers.
“Every time Hogan talked, everybody would go nuts,” Wagner said.
Fortunately for Wagner, who was reached shortly before their store’s 5 p.m. closing on March 30, things were not as bad that afternoon and he wondered if the initial panic is over.
Restrictions on restaurant service, travel and public gathering due to the coronavirus epidemic has led to a spike in sales for local meat producers with retail outlets and processors.
“It has been a little challenging trying to keep up with everything,” Wagner said, adding the initial rush of business they experienced after Hogan’s first closing announcement on Thursday, March 12, made it clear they “needed to modify their operations on the retail side.
“We were so busy those first few days that no one was able to eat lunch, or do much of anything. So, we changed our schedule and now we’re closed from 11 to 1 so we can sanitize, re-stock and, of course, eat lunch.”
They also quickly put limits on various products, such as a 5-pound limit on ground beef, “because people were coming in and asking for 30 pounds of ground beef.”
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Dwayne Nickerson, owner of Sudlersville Meat Locker, said on a typical Saturday, his store would serve 200 to 250 people. Since the state-imposed restrictions on restaurants and travel, he said about 400 people were coming to the store.
“To me, it was like Christmas, New Year’s and July 4th all in one week,” Nickerson said.
On one recent morning with the store set to open at 8 a.m., Nickerson said when he arrived at 6 a.m. to a parking lot full of cars and people waiting at the door to buy meat. One customer spent $1,250.
“For us, we couldn’t keep ground beef and boneless chicken breasts,” Nickerson said. “It just got to where people were coming in and hoarding.” Nickerson said they also had to place limits on how much a single customer could buy of the popular items. Starting on Wednesday, April 1, Nickerson moved sales to pre-orders and no contact, carside pickup in light of heightened restrictions in Maryland.
To meet the boost in traffic, he increased butchering by 30 to 40 percent and brought in more employees.
“We’re a family business and family had to jump in and help,” Nickerson said. “But that’s how it’s always been.”
He said he’s also thankful they expanded capacity of some of their packing equipment, namely a larger vacuum stuffer and mixer grinder.
“That’s the only way we could make it work,” he said. “We’re very fortunate for what business we have.”
Nickerson said Sudlersville Meat Locker processes animals for several Southern Maryland farmers, and has had to increase deliveries to them because they are seeing increased demand as well.
“Every farmer I’ve talked to has been selling out,” said Shelby Watson Hampton, executive director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Corporation, which operates the Southern Maryland Meats branding program. “We’re glad that people are buying local and getting to know these farmers.”
In Rapidan, Va., crop farmer and beef producer Tom Nixon had built his marketing largely around serving restaunts and school systems. “It all dried up at once,” Nixon said as restrictions and closures were mandated and he went from needing 40 to 60 head of cattle processed a week to virtually none. Fortunately, the disruption for Nixon was short lived as the processor was able to send more beef to Kroger grocery stores and told Nixon to send all the cattle he can.
Stoney Point Farm Market, a Littlestown, Pa., meat processor with an additional retail outlet at The Markets at Hanover in Hanover, Pa., also found itself imposing limits on the amount of certain products allowed per customer. Although for them, it was boneless chicken breasts that were affected. Thanks to a previously established and vetted network of supplemental suppliers from the Midwest states, they were able to keep up with the demand on ground beef.
“We feel very fortunate,” said Kristin Chrismer, a third generation member of Stoney Point’s family-owned business. “During times like these, we feel like we’re really important not only to our surrounding communities, but also down into the cities, because that’s where our wholesale and processing customers are taking our product.”
James Grinder, who utilizes Stoney Point’s processing services for his grass-fed beef cattle and Berkshire pigs raised on his Orchard Breeze Farm in Thurmont, Md., is one of several meat producers seeing an increase in sales.
“It’s crazy now,” said Grinder, “because there’s no meat in the supermarkets. Plus, a lot of folks don’t even want to go into the supermarkets at all.”
Grinder added however, as demand continues to stay high, farmers could have to face supply issues soon.
“I’ve only got so many animals that I can breed and raise.” Thus, similar to Stoney Point tapping its Midwest supply network, Grinder said, “if I need to buy more, I have friends who I can buy from” to keep up with the demand at his weekly farmers markets.
Jamie Condon, owner of Playtime Pastures in Granite, Md., agreed. Condon, who raises beef cattle, chickens and turkeys on a 32 acre farm, said, “You can only adjust your herd size to the amount of land you have.”
Sudlersville Meat Locker’s Nickerson said on March 31, he was not having any issues with getting animals to butcher but the partial closure of the massive JBS processing plant in Souderton, Pa., announced the same day, could put pressure on regional supply.
On her small family farm, Condon said they usually don’t need a huge inventory of meat for their customers. Instead, when their inventory begins running low, there are two other farms in the same general area that she can refer her customers to for their meat.
She noted, however, that they had “just sent one steer to Wagner’s to be processed and we made an appointment for a second one in three weeks. It might be a little more aggressive than usual, but we’re also coming up on the beginning of grilling season,” she said.
Still, in the current environment, Condon said she is grateful for the encouraging words she’s received from her customers, both new and old. “I haven’t had as many people thank me as in the last few weeks,” she said. “It’s good to know that if we weren’t working, people would notice it.”
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