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Our Food Supply Chain: Meat Lockers

Dick's Country Butcher shop serves patrons in southeast South Dakota.

COVID-19 has crippled the U.S. economy and exposed weak links in our food supply chain. The effects are on display in our grocery stores. From toilet paper to lunch meat and bacon, people see empty store shelves.

The temporary shutdown of a few Midwest meat packing plants left farmers and ranchers with no market for their animals. As a result, prices have been on a rollercoaster ride. And it’s prompted some people to look for different ways to get some of their food.

Brian Peterson struggles to write ads for his grocery store because he doesn’t know what the prices will be in two weeks. Peterson owns Fiesta Foods in Beresford. He says he’s worried, “It's real scary to internal hard to sit there and try to price something out and, and yet you want to be able to move your product and you know, there's people that can't afford it and you want to try to keep it as affordable as possible for them.”

Peterson is seeing shortcomings in the supply chain. He places an order to the warehouse and might only receive a portion of the shipment. Sometimes a product doesn’t come at all, “Certain cuts, the muscle meats and stuff have been pretty good. But we're starting to see, now, it's the process meats, the hams, bacon, the hotdogs, brats. We are starting to get a few outages on those, on our trucks.”

Grocery stores aren’t the only retail outlets with trouble stocking their coolers. The Sherman family has run Dick’s Country Butcher Shop for 35 years. Joe Sherman took over the locker from his folks six years ago.

Retail meat sales make up a small part of his business, only about a quarter. He struggles to find retail supplies for his local customers, “It fluctuates up and down a little bit, but over this last two months, my prices doubled and tripled. It's ridiculous right now. I'm trying to still provide the community with hamburger. I mean I'm doing everything I can do to get a decent rate, but I can guarantee nothing.

Prices for processed beef fluctuate wildly on the USDA daily report. Animals are available, but bottle necks at processing plants hold up supply. Local meat lockers don’t have the capacity to fill the gap.

To sell meat to retail customers across state lines, packing plants need USDA inspections. Thirty state inspected shops can sell retail meat they process. About sixty shops like Dick’s Country Butcher are state inspected for custom work. That’s when someone provides an animal, and the butcher processes that meat for them.

Even if Sherman COULD contribute to retail demand, he simply doesn’t have the space or man power to ramp up operations, “ It takes a lot of time for me, for me to get a beef in and hang it in my cooler. I have to hang a beef for 10 days to two weeks. I'm just a small, small, custom butcher shop. I would like to help everybody but it's not possible. I can only do six or seven beef a week.”

Demand for custom work is certainly high as consumers search for meat. Grocer Brian Peterson even fields calls from people looking for meat sources. He doesn’t fault folks for looking to cut out the middle man, “There's a, there's a lot of people looking for, um, sourcing local meat. That's great. We need to support our farmers. That's our community. That's our livelihood around here. Thiis is a big rural farming community.”

Even if a customer finds an animal, they still need to get it processed with a spot on a butcher’s calendar. Custom work makes up 75% of Joe Sherman’s business. He says he’s never seen the demand this high, “The amount of the phone calls that I've been getting, I've been getting since COVID hit, probably 70 to 80 beef a week. It’s just people trying to get that many in and maybe hundreds of pigs. I do six to eight hogs a week.”

Area butchers say they are already booked into 2021. Sherman has fielded so many calls, he isn’t taking new orders. Instead, he is working down his backlog and taking new clients when he can. Sherman say it is tough to plan ahead, “How do you expect to have an animal ready six months down the road if I give you a date and then you have to have something ready, that's hard too. The farmer is in a tough position.

Right now there is a high demand for businessmen like Joe Sherman. Unfortunately, small butcher shops have been dying out for years, “I'd say that's probably the main thing, just the amount of physical labor it takes and the time you got to put in. I'd say that'd be the main reason that there's not that many. We could definitely use more, that's for sure. “

Sherman says while some people can butcher their own meat, it’s a process that requires specialized equipment and facilities, “It's a little scary, you know, the time of year right now is not a good time to be hanging an animal in a barn or a shed. The proper cooling is the thing you worry about. But yes, I think that's going to become more common.

There’s enough work right now, to keep butchers very busy. Joe Sherman understands his patrons are frustrated. He is too. When we talked, his burger price was 5.69/pound and its only going to go up.