Food Chain Issues Confound Consumers, Challenge Farmers

Beth cowsOne of the latest developments in the COVID-19 crisis is a warning that the nation’s meat-packing plants are struggling to remain open as the entire U.S. food chain adapts to a massive shift in consumption habits.

“When a consumer walks into a grocery store and sees the shelves half-filled, that’s certainly worrisome,” said Robert Harper, grain marketing manager for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “But farmers are trying to look at it this way: Those shelves are half-full. Our system is still working, and it’s working under stresses that it’s never been put under before.”

Harper added that there’s no shortage of food. “Farmers are still working every day; their daily lives are the same as they’ve always been, because the cattle and hogs and birds they look after have to eat every day,” he explained. “They’re focusing on controlling what they can control.”

Meanwhile, he added, the nation’s food system “is trying to reconfigure itself in a matter of weeks, and there will be hiccups. But there are smart, capable, qualified people who are going to figure that out and get it dialed in.”

He added that there will be repercussions and commodity price swings, and farmers were already struggling to make a profit before COVID-19 hit.

“The ultimate goal during the COVID-19 issue is to keep the supply chain moving, and Virginia cattle producers are doing just that,” said Tracy Fitzsimmons, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association. “Local livestock yards are open and are providing an outlet for producers to sell Virginia cattle. Depending on the market situation, Virginia does have an advantage over other states. We have an abundance of grass, which gives cattlemen the ability to background calves longer if the need arises.”

Cattle producers like Emily Edmondson in Tazewell County are already adapting. The chairman of the Farm Bureau Livestock Advisory Committee has been marketing local for beef many years.

“That’s the only bright spot for me right now: The beef that I have sent to my local custom processor is selling,” Edmondson said. “There’s a big demand for locally produced beef, pork and chicken. My daughter-in-law has a restaurant, and she’s having difficulty getting products like pork ribs through their normal restaurant supplier.

“I think once people discover the quality and taste of local meat, once they start buying from us, they will continue to buy from us. There’s a true opportunity, although it takes some planning to do things differently,” she added. “But in the meantime we absolutely need the packers to be processing and pushing beef through the markets all across the country and overseas.”

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