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A Bottleneck In The Farm To Table Pipeline

Gabe Engle feeds sheep on his farm.
Christine Kueter
Gabe Engle feeds sheep on his farm.

At the moment, life is good for Gabe Engle’s 24 head of cattle and 30 sheep, who spend their days munching mouthfuls of Johnson weed and wild rye as he moves them from field to field.

The pandemic was, at first, good for farmers like Engle. Big meat processing plants were being shut down by COVID-19 outbreaks, and supplies at supermarkets dwindled. Consumers started thinking harder about where their meat was coming from, and wanted what Engle had to offer: humanely and sustainably raised pork, beef, and lamb.

His sales tripled. Freezers of his already-processed meat quickly emptied. Refilling them since has been tricky.

“Processing has always been a hurdle for us,” said Engle. “We saw all kinds of issues on a large scale, in the height of 2020, and that trickled back to us when we had a huge increase in sales because people really wanted to have meat, because shelves were empty, but they also wanted security and to know where their food was coming from. All of us small farms did everything we could to provide that, but the bottleneck was processing. We’re still seeing the dominoes of that.”

At the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that supports rural economies from Albemarle to Loudoun, John McCarthy says Virginia meat processors who serve small farmers like Engle are still booked a year to 18 months out. That’s made buying locally-raised meat harder.

“It was both a mechanical problem of the supply chain, and, I would assert, an increasing awareness of the public about where their meat comes from and thinking, ‘You know, why is meat that’s grown right around here in fields that I drive by shipped West for fattening, and then processed, and then shipped back for my refrigerator case?’

“There are people who came at it from the point of view of animal welfare, that that is simply not a very good thing to do to animals," McCarthy continued. "There were people that came to it from the point of view of carbon footprint, that that just didn’t make a whole lot of sense, shipping back and forth, and all the effort involved in doing that; and there were people who said, ‘I want to have some sort of awareness and relationship about where my food comes from, and be connected to it in that tangible way.’”

Before the pandemic, Engle could reserve a spot at a local slaughterhouse two to three months in advance. Today, it’s more difficult. With the already unpredictable nature of farming, and increased feed costs associated with delayed slaughter, it’s been “very bad for cash flow. The uncertainty is definitely troubles the mind. You have the actual cost now, you don’t know when or if it’s ever going to get better, and you don’t know what to do at that point.”

Engle has dealt with the situation by changing how he farms. He no longer raises pigs, which, given their appetites, are pricey to feed. Instead, he’s increased his flock of female sheep, which typically give birth to twins. The market for year-old lambs is good, and Engle can also sell live animals to other farms, directly to butchers, or at auction.

Still, he’d like to see more training and hiring of people who process meat. That would increase the supply for consumers, allow farmers to expand, and take pressure off people who’re already doing a difficult job.

“It’s such a hard job," Engle noted. They’re taking on a whole lot for those of us that eat meat. I have a lot of respect for them. Having more programs to get more meat processors up and going would get us to the point so we could do an even better job . . . The processors are a very, very important part of the equation.”

In our next report, we’ll hear how a new skilled meat cutting program starting in November will attract and train more local meat processors.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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