Jay Yankey typically advertises when he has half and whole beef cattle for sale, but this year he didn’t have to.
“I had to scramble to make sure my regular customers were taken care of,” said Yankey, owner of Yankey Farms in Prince William County, which typically sells 12 to 20 steers each year. “I didn’t even mention I had any [beef for sale] to anyone, but people found me out by word of mouth, and it was all spoken for very quickly.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain interruptions and consumers supporting local businesses, people are relying more on local farmers instead of grocery stores to stock their freezers.
Chris Hatch, owner of Mill Road Farms in Loudoun County, said his beef sales in January and February were mediocre, but once the pandemic hit and people were reporting shortages at the supermarket, his meat sales skyrocketed.
“A couple weeks ago, people were going to the grocery store not finding what they’ve been able to find in the past,” Hatch said. “I have direct-marketed for over 20 years, and this year has exceeded past years’ sales by far.”
According to Whitney Perkins, a commodity specialist with Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Virginia farmers are reporting overwhelming demand for local products. The Lulus Local Food program, an online platform for farmers and farmers markets to sell products directly to consumers, has experienced a 650% growth in sales and a 522% increase in orders for meat and other products this year.
And while they’re enjoying the increased business, farmers also are a little stressed because butchers and processing plants are booked well into next year.
Hatch and Yankey already pre-ordered their slaughter dates for 2021 just to be sure they could get reservations. Yankey said his butcher can’t keep up with the number of people wanting beef and hogs and is exploring hiring additional meat cutters.
“There’s this crush of new demand for local product that is just overusing the capacity of our local facilities,” he said. “Everybody I’ve talked to that’s dealing with it is overwhelmed.”
Continuing to meet the growing need is another challenge for producers, Perkins said, because it takes time to raise animals to maturity.
“But farmers are the most innovative group of people I know, and they always find a way to rise to consumer demands,” Perkins added. “It’s a real opportunity for us as producers and producer advocates to open a dialogue about where our food comes from and share in that story.”