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As meat processing facilities around the country have been ordered to stay open — including Smithfield in Cudahy and JBS in Brown County — they still face safety and health challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

It affects employment, economy and our food chain. It has an impact on what’s on our table. 

Consumers are turning to local farmers and butchers, wanting to know where their meats are coming from. They’re stocking up, concerned about rising prices and availability.

Related: Places where you can buy local meat in the Milwaukee area

Farm to table is taking on new meaning, as consumers shift their shopping habits. Facing unexpected limits and lack of availability for some things, people are rethinking what they buy and where they shop. 

Wisconsin has deep farming roots, and there are farmers raising meats in every area of the state. There’s no shortage of meats, necessarily. Consumers may just have to consider a different way of shopping and cooking. 

All meat gets inspected

Buying direct from a farmer is always an option in Wisconsin, but there are a few things you need to know before you clear space in the freezer. (By the way, those are hard to find in stores these days, too, so plan accordingly.)

There are small and large meat processing plants across the state. All meat for sale in the state must be inspected, and that begins with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which has 66 inspectors who handle processing in Wisconsin. 

Meats that will cross state lines for interstate sales are inspected and processed at USDA facilities. To find information on processing, locations and regulations, go to datcp.wi.gov or  www.fsis.usda.gov. Farmers cannot sell meat without inspection.

“Our inspections of meat processors is unchanged,” said Kevin Hoffman, public information officer for the Division of Animal Health at DATCP. “In fact, we’re accommodating requests for increased inspection and waiving the overtime inspection fee on extended slaughter days.”

Farmers are finding small processors

One of the biggest issues is a shift in the supply chain. While larger processors, such as Tyson, JBS and Smithfield adjust, they may be taking in fewer animals. In turn, farmers are having to find different markets for those animals, starting with meat processors. Smaller meat processors throughout the state are stepping in, but farmers who haven't already booked an appointment are finding a major backlog. 

For example, Cedar Road Meats in Iron Ridge is already booked for all of 2020, and will start accepting animals for processing in 2021 starting June 1. 

Farmers always have planned their schedules with meat processors months in advance, around the growth of a steer or hog, but typically there has been a bit of room to get animals processed when ready. Now, processors are booked months out even while running extra shifts. Some, like People’s Meats in Stevens Point and Johnson’s Sausage Shoppe and Catering in Rio, are taking on animals that were originally meant for operations like Tyson.

“My motto was always the farmer knows when the animal is ready, not the processor. Now, it is when can I get you in?” said Chris Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Sausage Shoppe and Catering in Rio. The store handles slaughter and meat processing, and sells fresh and frozen meats. Johnson's has also seen a bump in online orders.

“In 25 years I have never experienced anything like this,” Johnson said. “We see an increase in everything. I just want people to buy what they need, not to panic. We’re not going to run out. As long as farmers keep raising beef and pigs, we have meat. Meat lockers like Fred’s, and places like Pick ’N Save, they don’t slaughter, so they’re at the mercy of others, but I don’t want people to panic about trying to keep 300 pounds of meat in the freezer.”   

 “Wisconsin’s meat plants are doing their part to keep the meat supply chain working, and many Wisconsinites live near meat plants,” Hoffman said. “Even though these plants produce smaller volumes, they operate under state or federal inspection and would welcome your business. Many farmers are also selling meat from their animals. As long as the slaughter and processing are done under state/federal inspection, these sales are legal and a great way to help a farmer’s cash flow.”

Filling the food banks

Additionally, producers and processors have teamed up throughout Wisconsin to get meats to consumers in need. DATCP and the Wisconsin Pork Association helped launch the Passion for Pork project earlier this month, helping to get pork products to food banks and pantries in need, as well as to consumers.

That pork might otherwise go to waste, said Keri Retallick, WPA executive vice president.

The program included 60 hogs delivered to People’s Meat Market in Stevens Point, which stepped up to ensure animals ready for slaughter would not be euthanized due to lack of available processing. Pritzlaff Meats in New Berlin and Neesvig’s Meats in Windsor are among operations receiving some of those hogs for further processing and packaging statewide. 

Hogs for the Passion for Pork project are supplied by Wisconsin pig farmers, but WPA is accepting donations to cover “costs associated with the processing, storage, and delivery of the pork to food banks and pantries.” 

WPA is accepting donations to support the program. Donations can be mailed to Passion for Pork ℅ Peoples State Bank, P.O. Box 218 Bloomington, WI 53804 or online at donorbox.org/passion-for-pork. 

Freezer space and shortages

Buying animal halves or quarters does require freezer space, and an awareness of what you’re buying.   

“A quarter, I always tell people two laundry baskets is a good prospective, for a half that is four or more,” said Mitchell Kunde, who runs Lewie’s Custom Raised Beef farm with his wife, Katie, in the Town of Oshkosh.

Rod Ofte, of Willow Creek Ranch and Wisconsin Meadows, explains, “If you want a half, almost everyone sells by hanging weight. People see the hanging weight of 350 on their invoice, then they see 250 (pounds after processing) on their invoice and they get upset. If you want the best value, you can get a custom half and have the fun of cutting to your own instructions, get steak to the thickness you want.” 

His suggestion to get the most bang for your buck? “Take everything but the moo. If you pay by hanging weight, you pay for the bones, the organs. Take them.” 

For many, a smaller option of a meat package is a good option. Consider a variety of cuts, which more farmers are also making available online or for delivery. 

“We rolled out online last year,” said Matt Lutsey, owner of Waseda Farms, which has a farm and store in Baileys Harbor and meat processing in De Pere where they fulfill internet orders. “Obviously since the beginning of the outbreak things have gone up substantially as the shopping habit of the American consumer has changed drastically.” 

“Yes, there are shortages,” Lutsey said. “All the premium cuts, because it really is supply and demand. You don’t have to just eat tenderloin or chicken breast, there are so many other great cuts and parts of the animal that are delicious and fulfilling. You can save a lot of money, and I think there are more flavorful cuts. Be adventurous.” 

Andy Degnitz, of Pond-Dell Beef just west of Fredonia, only recently started selling directly to customers. He’s been hit by the unexpected increase in demand.

“Ground beef is the part where I’m going to have the hardest part keeping up with, and it is going to change how I’m going to process animals for sale,” Degnitz said. “I’ve got orders right now for more than 175 pounds that I can’t fill until July or August. And, this year, with the rush on chicken breast I can’t keep those in stock either.”

While farmers are happy to connect to consumers directly, they’re also raising animals and most of their supply is planned months or more in advance.  

 “In terms of supply and limitation, now that processors are booked out through October, if you call someone now don’t expect your meat this week or next,” Ofte said. “If you want the best value, you’re going to have to think and plan ahead.” 

For farmers, including Kirsten Jurcek at Brattsett Family Farm, which sells both on farm and at the Oak Creek Farmers Market, there is also a need to balance current demand and future planning. 

“One thing that could be problematic, people are seeing a meat shortage and doing this for right now, not long-term. I have a concern that farmers will add more animals, then next year not have the same market,” said Jurcek, echoing the concerns of farmers across the state. “Hopefully people will stay interested in local foods and continue to buy from farmers.” 

RELATED: As restaurants close for coronavirus, farmers find ways to get food to our homes

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