The meat processing industry has taken a big hit due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees in plants. Small-scale slaughter operations are experiencing the effects on a local level. The number of customers continues to rise as COVID-19 outbreaks at major meat plants have caused panic in consumers and has forced farmers to seek alternative solutions.
Inside MJF Scranton Meat Processing in Scranton, owners Mathew and Jimmie Frederick are overloaded with the demands of local farmers and residents.
For the past four years, this local business has processed a few farm animals from local farms each week, processed deer for hunters during hunting season and sold cuts of beef to the public.
"We are fully booked up into March of next year. We are turning down people, but we are doing as much as we possibly can given room in our coolers and freezers," said Fredrick.
Now the family-owned business and others like it are overwhelmed and are forced to turn away farmers and local customers. The COVID-19 outbreaks have left large meat processors closed or at reduced capacity, causing a beef shortage for many Americans, but Fredrick feels panic played a considerable role.
"This is usually my slow time of the year and I am doing more than I have ever done. As soon as the news hit of a beef shortage and people started seeing what was happening in the stores, it went crazy."
Frederick said that a large percentage of his orders have been from his regular customers, but he has also had a few customers who were processing beef to sell during the shortage.
"I have one customer who is processing five to six beef a month to sell to people."
Fredrick said they are thankful they have the ability to process meat for locals, but it gets overwhelming at times and they are planning to close for a week to have a break.
"We have been coming in early and staying late to try and squeeze in a few additional orders, but we have to take care of our employees. They have gone above and beyond during this time and they need a break."
When asked about the upcoming hunting season, Fredrick was quick to answer that they would not be processing deer this year.
"We are not going to do deer this year. I know that there will be many unhappy people, but I have so many customers already."
Frederick said that other local processing companies would not be processing deer this year as well and he will use that time to try and catch up and get more other meat orders in.
"Up until a week or so ago, we were turning down up to 25 beef a week. Of course, we do sheep, goats and hogs as well and these are more of a demand than the deer would be," said Jimmie.
"We could have done more beef, but we had to save room for the hogs. After a hog gets so big, there is nothing you can do with it."
Fredrick waited until last week to make a final decision about deer season, but as the COVID-19 cases continue to rise, they knew the answer.
"Deer season brings 600-700 hundred people to our business, many who are from out of town and even out of state, that could potentially expose our employees and even though it was a hard decision, we have to take care of our employees and ourselves."
The Fredrick's said they are doing as much as they have the capacity for and at the end of the slaughtering day, there is not an empty hook available.
Local farmer Clark Parker saw losses at the sale barn as prices fell hard in late March and April.
"There has been a significant relief package being funded through the USDA, and most all producers I know have received assistance or are in the process of applying."
The USDA relief paid different rates depending on when you sold cattle. Farmers who sold cattle in January (pre-COVID impact), benefited more than farmers who sold in late April in the middle of the COVID market crash.
Parker also commented that there was ample protein supply on the farms and feedyards that could easily handle average demand, but nobody was prepared for the vast demand.
"It's also important to note that restaurants and other foodservice drive the demand 10X more than grocery stores, so on one hand demand was way down and freezers were filling up, while some plants were closed or operating at reduced capacity from employee illness and absenteeism, meanwhile the average consumer was panic buying at the grocery store."
Parker said he typically has 1-3 heads butchered for his family's consumption yearly and they do not sell to the public.
"We schedule those up to a year in advance, so we've been able to get ours processed as normal-for now. I called my preferred processor two weeks ago about a future date and they are full until February 2022."
"I expect as the pandemic fear wanes, people will lose patience and go back to their pre-COVID shopping habits, freeing up the processors."
On the poultry side, Parker said his farm didn't see much impact.
"We grew a flock of chickens that was normal in almost every way, and then we got the next flock of baby chicks back right on schedule. I'm sure the integrator might have a much different outlook on all of the ways it impacted the corporation, but for us, on this farm, those impacts were very few."