(Originally posted on Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Blog)
“Hi! I’d like to book an appointment for three cattle at the end of August.”
“I’m sorry. Our appointments are filled through the end of the year, and we won’t be taking appointments for January through June of 2022 until June 30th.”
“Ok. Do you know of any other places we can book?”
“You can try here or there, but honestly, they’ll probably be booked as well. I’m sorry I don’t know of anyone that would for sure have openings.”
“Thank you! Can I ask (long pause)…. Why is it like this?”
Over the last couple years, this has been a conversation I have had over and over with farmers from our area and from afar. Phone call encounters happen weekly, and while my heart goes out to all farmers, I do not have a simple answer or solution.
How did we get to this point? Why has finding custom slaughter appointments become so hard and frustrating for farmers? Many have blamed it on COVID, but I would argue it started years before. In my opinion (and I am no expert), I think it started when consumers stopped paying attention to where their food came from and instead focused on cheap, easy food. As long as meat was in the store and they could purchase it for the price they wanted, it didn’t matter how it got there.
Agriculture integrated to “meat” the demand of consumer quantity and price. Some processors switched from local harvesting a few dozen head of animals a week to harvesting a few hundred animals a day, while others went from custom harvesting to only selling retail cuts. Some processors continued to do full-service processing, while others simply went out of business – unable to keep up with the workload, find employees, and/or make enough money to survive.
I would say local demand for products started growing about five years ago. We saw the shift at our meat processing facility as farmers started moving from having one or two appointments for livestock to having five, six, seven or more. However, it wasn’t until the closing of the larger plants that everyone else (consumers and some farmers) truly saw the effects of the integration of meat processing.
I saw dozens of Facebook posts circulating about how easy it is for consumers to purchase meat locally. “Find a farmer. They will take it to a butcher. And you’ll take home meat.”
They made it seem so simple, and at one time, it may have. However, put simply, processing facilities, such as ours, do not have the means to harvest the quantity of livestock consumers are willing to purchase locally. The infrastructure is not there.
I cannot speak on behalf of all custom livestock processing businesses, as each one is different – different Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, different building layouts, different employees, different retail systems, etc. But I know the factors we face and how they impact how we operate and how many livestock we can harvest and process.
I contribute our capacity to three factors:
Cooler and freezer space – There is only so much cooler space for carcasses and freezer space for products; when they are full, we cannot harvest additional animals.
Processing floor space – There are only so many tables, saws, wrapping stations, etc. that can be utilized and fit on the processing floor; when they are all being used, we cannot process additional animals.
Employees – There are only so many willing workers; when they are working as much as they can, we are harvesting as many animals as we can. Admittedly, as with most industries, we have seen a labor shortage. We cannot fill all the job openings we currently have and when there is an open position, there is a loss of availability to effectively and efficiently process livestock.
When all three of these align, we can reach our maximum capacity (which granted, is nothing near doing hundreds per day). However, when just one of these three factors is affected, our processing capacity decreases.
As we made appointments for next year, we considered these three factors to understand how many animals we could comfortably process. For the first time in our twelve years of operation, we had to limit farmers to a certain number of processing slots. It was a hard decision to do so, but in doing it, we were able to give more farmers a handful of appointments rather than giving a handful of farmers a lot of appointments.
When I have encounters with farmers… When they ask, “Why is it like this?”, I always take an extra second to explain the processor’s side.
I try to explain the three factors that make up our capacity. I try to explain how there are fewer local custom processing facilities than there were years ago. I try to explain that new, possibly young farmers are also trying to be a part of the market. I try to explain that farmers can sell livestock at a premium to local consumers versus selling them at market, so they have been trying to sell more locally.
I try to explain it all.
But ultimately, my goal is to help them understand we are doing the best we can in as fair of a way as we can.
As farmers look for processing slots at local facilities, I hope they continue to be understanding of the shift in change and the many factors that go into providing meat from farm to fork. As processors, we are doing our best to support farmers and consumers. However, to be able to harvest the quantity of livestock consumers are currently willing to purchase locally, we need to have the means to find employees and update/expand our infrastructure.