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The crew at Wisconsin River Meats was expecting Saturday, March 14, 2020, to be like any other Saturday in March where customers pick up their venison or custom processing orders and they sell some sausage and their usual mix of other meats. However, that quickly changed.

"The preceding couple of weeks had been strange with talk of Coronavirus, and with the cancellation of State Basketball, NCAA Championships and Professional Sports," Wisconsin River Meats owner John Hamm told the Wisconsin State Farmer. "We saw quarantines of cruise ships and reports of illnesses and deaths in Italy on the rise." 

Wisconsin River Meats owner John Hamm arrived to work at 6:30 a.m.on March 14. A small handful of retail staff and the sausage crew were on hand.

Around 7:45 a.m., they received a strange phone call asking if they were open and if they had any meat left. Hamm said they told the caller they were open until 4 p.m. and they had meat left. Although they were somewhat perplexed by the questions, it was the caller's last question they found the oddest of all. 

"His last question to us, 'Will you run out?'  We replied, 'No,' ” Hamm explained. "We were puzzled when within a few minutes we received several more calls. Each caller inquired the same as the first. They wanted to know if we were still open, if we were out of meat, and if we would run out of meat."

Hamm told employees they better make an extra round of fresh ground beef, "just in case the store got busy."

As customers started trickling in, there were many they had never seen before, some who had driven an hour or more to get to the shop.

"The store quickly filled with people,' Hamm wrote to the Wisconsin State Farmer.

"An influx of hoarders had hit, they were coming and going in droves. They began buying ground beef; 20, 40, 50 pounds or more at a time. Any and all pork that was merchandised in the store was quickly wiped out as fast as we could fill it. Steaks and discount bundles disappeared by the carload," Hamm wrote. "It turns out that big box stores and small local grocers in outlying areas had run completely out of meat by Friday evening. Desperate to find meat to get them through this crisis, customers came out en mass, families with each member holding arm loads of meat, and shopping baskets overflowing."

Wisconsin River Meats butchers made two more rounds of fresh ground beef and cut everything that was available. They made it through the day without running out of any product and had enough to get through a second surge of shoppers on Sunday.

By Monday morning they were beginning to run short on. 

"Fortunately, our suppliers were able to provide us with meat for sausage and fresh ground beef Monday morning, which we immediately rushed to process ensuring we were able to keep our meat cases stocked for the record number of customers that continued to stream in throughout the day," Hamm explained.

With the rush showing no signs of slowing down, they reached out to local livestock producers, ordering twice the usual amount of beef and pork, "which our wonderful local livestock producers were able to provide for us the next day."  

"As Monday the 16th progressed, we were still filling the store as fast as we could, barely keeping up with the onslaught of customers. We ran out of pork butts and pork loins in the store mid-morning," Hamm wrote. "We began to offer up our frozen overstock and promptly sold out. We had made plenty of corned beef for our usual St. Patrick’s Day rush, and had plenty to go around. Monday left our meat cases half empty. We had made over 500 pounds of fresh ground beef which sold as fast as we filled it."

The next day, Tuesday, was slaughter day and they restocked with fresh beef and pork from the previous week’s harvest. On Wednesday, they increased number of hogs to be broken down and merchandised. 

"Every bit of pork we had was merchandised and sold as soon as it hit the shelves," Denise A. Wee, sales and marketing manager wrote to the Wisconsin State Farmer. "Any beef we were able to break down and merchandise simply vanished into shopping baskets and our meat cases were soon wiped clean."

As shoppers continued stockpiling food supplies, big stores and grocers couldn't keep up with the demand of panic buying and meat counters and shelves emptied.

Wisconsin River Meats helped some neighboring independent grocers by supplying hundreds of pounds of beef and pork so they would have meat to sell to their customers. 

"By the end of Tuesday it was apparent that we would soon run out of product again.  We reached out once more to our local farmers and producers and secured another round of hogs to slaughter," wrote Hamm. "We bought more hogs and scheduled a state inspector for a second slaughter date on Thursday. 

"Thanks to our local farmers rushing to supply us with hogs and our butchers working long hours to process them and cutting what beef we could, we managed to keep our cases full through the weekend," he added. "Though, we began to run low on just about everything on Sunday the 22nd." 

The next week remained busy. With the help of local livestock producers, they ran double the amount of hogs and tripled the number of beef for slaughter. 

"Our Butcher’s worked long and hard to keep our store’s needs and our customers supplied with meat for their families," Hamm wrote. "To get through the “Safer At Home” order, our customers purchased more in our store than ever before. They have purchased a record amount of beef halves and quarters and also pork wholes and halves. All locally sourced." 

Hamm and Wee pointed out that the pandemic buying in March illustrated the efficiency and value of a local food network "and the resiliency of a vibrant local food chain."

"A healthy food chain benefits not only local consumers, but the local livestock producers/farmers, local processors and local retailers who work cohesively to bring food and products to the public," they added.                        

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.

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