Large, industrial meat processing plants are now ‘hot spots’ for spreading Coronavirus. Some have closed while the industry grapples with how to provide safety for workers, causing shortages at supermarkets. But sales at some small, local farms in southwestern Virginia are booming like never before.
“It’s been just astronomical," says Daniel Salitan, operations manager at Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. “Our sales are probably up, I haven't run all the numbers, but they're probably up between two and three hundred percent for the month of late March, April and now into May. Um, which is fairly hard to wrap your head around as a small business like ours.”
We caught Salitan indoors on a rainy day, but most of the time, he and a dozen employees are outside, just like the grass-fed livestock they raise. The farm was started by his father, Joel Salatin, 50 years ago and has been called the gold standard of sustainable agriculture.
Now that the pandemic brought to light, some of the problems with large, centralized food production and distribution, the local farm movement is having a moment.
“I think people are just looking for more reliable, locally based, less steps in the chain.” Says Salitan, “not having to go to a big processor in the middle of the country. So, I think the wave is going to be fairly long lasting, even if things went back to normal in 60 days.”
Cedric Shannon owns Weathertop Farms in Floyd, where business has also increased. “The sustainable movement, the regenerative agriculture movement, has been arguing for decades for a more decentralized resilience.”
He says there was a time when every rural county had its own butcher, but those days are gone. “So now our supply chain is just like four links and if you break the link, we're finished, right? We suddenly feel it through the whole system.” What we need, he says, is a better supply chain. “We need resilience.”
Like Polyface Farms, Weathertop builds in that resilience, using systems like a rotational outdoor grazing method, where animals are slowly moved to greener pastures, well before they deplete them. The animals leave behind, their very own fertilizer to regenerate the soil. Shannon believes regenerative farming is key to human health and the health of the planet, as demonstrated by this current crisis.
“What's getting exposed here in America is that we're in a sense, so overfed and malnourished because our food system and our food itself is such poor quality and has so few nutrients in it. And so, if we've been eating food from completely depleted soils from halfway across the world, we don't have the kind of biome that's resilient.
Both Shannon and Salitan would like to see a return to locally grown and processed meat, but Shannon says it would take an enormous amount of political will “as well as an enormous amount of desire from the people themselves to do this kind of work. Right now, we have the demand, we have tons of people wanting good food. They like the idea of sustainability and regenerative agriculture. But we don't have enough farmers. We don't have enough people ready to dedicate their lives to this (type of regenerative farming) because it's really hard work and you don't make that much money.
It's true that change is often long in coming. Then, something unexpected happens, changing everything in a matter of weeks.
“Even if just a small percentage, 5% or 10% of people were to change their buying practices, even a little bit in supporting local agriculture, it would have a massive, ripple effects across our country, our economic picture, our local community picture, and certainly our, environmental impact.” says Salitan.
“I'm very optimistic that these kinds of major upheavals, as much as they are uncomfortable and unwanted, definitely can bring about positive change. And so, we're very optimistic that folks are going to be much more open to locally sourced food systems, locally produced meat and protein. I think it has lasting impact on our food production system. And for that, I'm pleased and I'm happy, albeit a very negative situation.”
The pandemic has shed light on the risk posed by tight supply chains and huge centralized production.
“I would like to think that if the wave is strong enough and long enough, we will see additional local meat processors pop up all along the country side to create the decentralization of the food, and especially the meat industry, that has been so long needed.
Polyface Farms offers delivery and pick up options and Weathertop offers orders on- line for pickup at the farm - or at the Blacksburg farmers market every weekend.