Pandemic Magnifies Meat Production Bottleneck
On a hot, sunny day in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, Annia Carter diligently walked out into a pond across the road from her house.
"I'm gonna check it and if we should flip it instead, we can flip it," Annia said to her husband, RC Carter who watched along the side of the pond.
The Carters are a ranching family in Ten Sleep. Annia left a cowhide in the pond overnight.
"Oh my gosh it's full of snails," she exclaimed. "Do you see them?" she asked RC. He nodded his head. Annia continued moving the hide around in the water.
"It's cleaned up a lot of it. Look at the fat floating. This is so exciting."
They looked it over and decided maybe it needs a little more time for the bugs and fishes to eat the flesh.
"We're really trying to respect the whole animal and use everything and really get our hands on it," said Annia.
The cow is the first they've butchered on their property in an effort to find the solution to a problem. For the past seven years or so, their business, Carter County Meats, has been selling 98 percent of its product to restaurants. But then, the pandemic hit.
"And so we got backed off. I think it was almost two months before we could get animals back in. So yeah, we definitely felt it," RC said.
The pandemic has highlighted a bottleneck that already existed in the meat industry. Local, natural grass fed beef has become more popular in the past couple of years. Producers started crowding small USDA certified processing plants in Wyoming and nearby states. Jill Klawonn has been in the business for 20 years. She said the plants were starting to get full.
"Then COVID hit, and the grocery stores experienced a hiccup in the supply chain," Klawonn said.
That hiccup was 80 percent of the nation's processing plants, owned by four major meat processors, experiencing closures and labor shortages due to COVID-19. This stopped the flow of meat coming into grocery stores.
"And so when the grocery stores did not have the meat available, people turned to farmers markets to the small meat processors or the ranchers that they have known for years and called them up," said Klawonn.
This in turn filled up the small processing plants, many of which are now booked a year to four years in advance. This means producers like the Carters and Klawonn have the cattle, but don't have the ability to get it processed to be sold to customers.
"Our inventory is the lowest we've ever been because demand is high," said Klawonn. "I think at one point, when I was looking at the records we were 171 percent over last year, but there's probably going to be a time period where I run very low to out."
Ranchers have a few options for getting around this problem. State Representative Tyler Lindholm said more USDA processing plants need to be created to decentralize the meat supply chain.
"All these custom slaughter facilities, those are the organizations that we should be propping up and giving them the tools and opportunities to be able to supply directly to their little local communities," said Lindholm.
Another option is to better utilize Wyoming's Food Freedom Act. That act allows homemade products to be sold directly to consumers without any need for federal regulations. But it didn't include red meat until this July.
"What a rancher now can do is they can fractionalize, or put shares on an entire herd of animals. And so they could sell shares for say, like one dollar a piece," said Lindholm. "Which means everyone that owns a share of that entire herd of animals can now shop right out of that rancher's freezer."
RC Carter is trying to take advantage of the Wyoming Food Freedom Act. He describes himself as a problem solver. So, when the pandemic hit, he decided to take the opportunity to do something he was thinking about.
"We've been just kind of working towards this for a long time. And so we're thinking about how we can improve the quality of our meat?" said RC. "But I think in the long run, we can end up with a much higher quality product and get the price down."
The trick here is that nobody profits from it outside of the Carters. For instance, meat processed on the Carters' ranch can't be sold in a grocery store. Currently, federal laws say meat sold to restaurants, grocery stores and across state lines must be processed through USDA certified facilities. RC is fine with that.
"We're just keeping it all local and in the community to help support our community and lower the prices of their product," he said. "And just support what is here and what money is here, keep it here.
RC looks forward to butchering more cows on his ranch using as much of the animal as he can and maybe even selling the hide.