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Commentary: Pandemic Creates Challenges for Small Farmers

Ann Knowles

Having been an active participant in the local food movement in one capacity or another for most of my life, I have to say that 2020 brought unfathomable challenges that have tested our determination to provide healthy, safe, farm raised food.  I'm here today to share an anecdote of the every day struggles of a small farmer who raises and sells meat during the COVID pandemic.

When our two litters of spring piglets were born in mid-April, I called our butcher in Springfield to arrange processing appointments for them.  Pigs are ready for market in approximately six months and I wait until the sows have farrowed to know how many processing appointments to make.  So I called, stated to the booking manager that I would like eighteen appointments for late October, and was immediately turned down.  I was in shock.  How could this be? We’ve been customers for years; regularly bringing lambs, cattle, and hogs to you for processing and our customers love the packaging and quality of the meat.  Sorry, we’re all booked up.  You can make appointments for March of 2021 if you’d like.  That’s the soonest we can work you in.  March of 2021?  What? These pigs will weigh 500 pounds by then and the meat quality will be compromised.  Is there a waiting list?  No, sorry.  We’re full.  Click.

Panic set in.  What are we going to do with these pigs?  Sell them to someone as weaned pigs and close the store?  Give them away and save the feed cost? Let people buy them live and offer a DIY service?

Clearer heads prevailed and we set about finding another place to have them butchered.  After all, we have six months and there are a lot of processing plants in the area, right?  Wrong.  While there are butchers, USDA inspected processors are scarce in large part due to the volumes of paperwork attached to the certification.  It’s not that there’s no inspector; the same person does both state and federal inspections.  It’s the paperwork and the added costs of having someone keep up with it.  Small butchers who operate on slim margins can’t afford one more government regulation and butchering for retail sale is simply not a priority.  The ability to have our meat inspected for retail sale is what led us to the Springfield butcher when we began our business. 

Back to the kitchen where we are now calling butchers in Iowa and Missouri.  After over an hour of dead ends, a butcher in Bowling Green, Missouri agrees to schedule our pigs for October and December.  It’s a two-hour trip but no different than we’re used to going to Springfield, so we gratefully complete the four trips there and back to deliver, pick up, deliver, pick up, until we have freezers full of local, outdoor raised pork.

Lamb processing continues to be even more problematic with most butchers flat out refusing to process them entirely.  Butchering lambs is relatively low margin compared to cattle or hogs and with demand at an all-time high, they simply don’t need the work.  Finding a USDA inspected butcher for lambs was even more difficult and we had to travel 90 miles to Buffalo Prairie, IL.  If you know where that is, you’ll also know that the feed store is also the post office and the only place to buy a candy bar or something to drink.

You may wonder why a pandemic that began in China caused a shortage of processing appointments for meat animals in Illinois.  Well, I’d need my own half hour show for a week to fully explain but the short of the long is that the supply chain for food in our country is controlled by a very few, very big companies who have swallowed up the competition.  Add to that government regulations that have forced small operators to invest large amounts of capital or close and you have the perfect storm for a weak link in the chain to break.  That weak link was caused by a tiny virus that a year ago most of us thought was something that folks in China got when they ate bat soup.  My, what we’ve learned in a year’s time.  Or have we?

 Ann Knowles is owner and operator of Hickory Grove Farm.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.