APRIL ON THE FARM
This month’s newsletter is going to be a departure from what our normal newsletter talks about. This month we will concentrate on what changes are currently happening in the meat industry and how those changes are affecting all the smaller farms here in South Carolina including us.
In the past few weeks we have heard of major processing plants shutting down because several of their employees have tested positive for Covid-19. So far 2 beef processing plants in Pa, Cargil and JBS, have shut down and remain closed, Smithfield announced they are closing their Sioux Falls SD plant after almost 700 employees tested positive with 1 dying, and Tyson has announced it is closing a plant in Ga after employees starting testing positive and a couple died. The Smithfield Sioux Falls plant alone processes 4% to 5% (18 million meals a day) of the US pork requirement. We expect to continue hearing of processing plant closures in the upcoming weeks as the disease spreads.
Anyone that has ever been in a processing plant can quickly understand why people working in these plants are becoming infected. In most large, commercial, plants the workers stand shoulder to shoulder as the meat comes down an assembly line and each worker picks up a piece of meat and performs his or her task. In some plants, workers are positioned on both sides of the assembly line and are face to face separated by a 3 foot or so wide conveyor. These working conditions don’t bode well for social distancing.
Most of the meat processing plants as well as the people working in the vegetable fields are immigrants. Some of these workers are here legally but many are here illegally. The legal status only compounds the problem. Many of these workers live in cramped housing and will often go to work sick for fear of being fired. When sick many are afraid to go to the doctor or don’t have the money to pay for the doctors visit. This can quickly spread the disease throughout these meat processing facilities.
The closures of these plants has affected farmers across the country and caused live animal prices to plummet; with the plants closed, there is no one to buy the live animals causing the prices to drop. Live cattle prices are currently around .80 a lb while lean pork prices are in the mid $30.00 per hundred weight; both are well below the cost of production for even the most efficient farms. Chickens and turkeys are not traded or sold through stockyards or buying stations so we really have no idea what poultry farmers are receiving on their contract payments.
Uncertainty is causing a major problem in the market as well. When will the processing plants begin opening? How much excess production will there be? How long will it take to get prices back up to profitable levels? Hog farmers just went through 3 years of depressed prices due to the trade war with China, how much longer can they produce with prices below the cost of production before we see them shutting down permanently?
All of this could lead to shortages of meat and produce in the near future. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of meat and produce out there, just getting it processed and getting it delivered to the stores is the problem. I think any shortages at the grocery stores will be short lived and in specific products.
So what does this all mean for small farms like ours? Why are we worried about the commodity beef and pork prices? As the large processing plants close, some of the meat destined for those plants is diverted to the smaller plants like we use as the farmers decide its best to slaughter the animal and try to sell it direct to the consumer than take the big loss selling to the commodity market. This quickly captures the available processing space and causes delays in getting product ready to market. Just since we heard of Cargil and JBS closing, we’ve seen beef processing schedules extend from a few weeks to a few months out. In Kingstree where we process chickens and hogs, beef processing had been running about a month out, now they are booked through July. The plant we process cows at in NC did let us take 5 steers a week ago but won’t give us another date for when we can bring more. We take a lot of cows there so they are trying to get us in as soon as possible but this could possibly cause us to run out of beef in the next couple of weeks.
Last week while taking chickens and hogs to Kingstree, I sat down with the owner and discussed current processing schedules there. We’re still down for up to 300 chickens and a max of 10 hogs a week. He is also allowing us to bring hogs that we sell to other farms and will squeeze them into the processing schedule as needed. The problem we will see at the plant is breaking the animal down into the various parts and in making sausage. The plant has the capability of making about 500 lbs of sausage an hour with the equipment they have in-house. Most small farms will only order small batches of 30 to 50 lbs of sausage at a time which causes the workers to be constantly breaking the equipment down, cleaning, and getting set up to run a different sausage flavor. The most time consuming sausage to run is breakfast links. The plant can only produce 170 lbs of these small links an hour versus 500 lbs an hour for the brat style links.
To help the plant out, once our inventory of mild breakfast links, cranberry and sage breakfast links, and maple and sage breakfast links runs out, we will only be supplying these products in 1 lb loose packages or in the form of patties. Once things slow down again we will go back to producing these flavors in links. There will be no changes in the brat style sausages. The goal right now is to make sure product continues flowing out of the plant so that everyone can provide meat to their customers.
Many people have been asking for Saint Louis style pork ribs and pork tenderloins. I’m sorry to say that these will be in scarce supply for awhile. Without the restaurants buying loins, shoulders, and bellies, we aren’t killing the number of hogs we did previously. The restaurants didn’t buy ribs or tenderloins from us which provided us with a large amount to sell to our family customers. We will probably remove those items from our ordering page until we build up a decent inventory again.
When the restaurants closed we cancelled all weekly orders for chicks until May 5. The plan was to see how demand was going and then decide how we would proceed. Chicken sales have been so good that last week we called and got the hatchery to send us 300 chicks and to begin sending us 300 chicks weekly as they were prior to the shutdown. We continue to process 250 or so chickens a week but instead of them being mostly whole birds, they are now mostly cut into parts. Cutting the birds into parts is done by hand and takes a good bit more time than just processing whole birds. To try and help the plant keep things moving we are considering temporarily doing away with the boneless skinless thighs. At the very least we will cut way back on the number of them we have cut and offer mainly whole thighs.
Turkeys have been a big topic around here lately. When the pandemic started, we had received our first shipment of turkey poults and had another 4 scheduled to arrive in April, May, and June. We decided it would be best to cancel those shipments and reschedule them later once we got a better idea of what was happening and how long we would be facing these issues. Because of the time required to grow the turkeys, and the cost associated with growing and processing them, we decided it was best to sit this year out and not raise any more birds than we received in our first shipment. I know this will disappoint a lot of people but we need to concentrate on what provides the farm revenue throughout the year and not just on one day. Hopefully this will be gone by next year and we will be able to provide Holiday turkeys once again.
Earlier in this newsletter I relayed what is currently happening in the beef industry and how it is affecting our local processors. I also mentioned that we took 5 steers to be processed a week ago. This week we will pick up the last steer that we had processed previously. In the past 4 or 5 weeks we have sold 4 cows with this one being number 5. We’re not sure when the 5 taken last week will be ready for us to pick up or when we will be allowed to take more. This is causing us some serious issues and means we may be totally out of beef for weeks at a time in the near future no matter how well we plan.
Most people know that we supplied a lot of our products to local restaurants. But, except for chefs, no one knew that we also supplied restaurants with other products that weren’t raised on our farm and that we had private labeled for us under the brand name Palmetto Pork and Poultry. We specifically didn’t want them labeled as Keegan-Filion because we wanted everyone to know that when they received a Keegan-Filion product that it had been raised on our farm utilizing our production practices and so restaurants couldn’t use our name while supplying the Palmetto product; it’s part of our insistence on being honest at all times with our customers The Palmetto line of products is a high quality product line but consisted of products that weren’t raised on pasture and weren’t raised on our farm. Under this label we sold some pork butts but also sold beef rib loins, strip loins, and ground beef. All of these products are Certified SC.
We’ve decided that due to the shortage of beef, we would offer rib eyes, New York Strips and ground beef under the Palmetto Label for sale on our website when we are sold out of our beef. This beef is grass fed, GRAIN FINISHED, and IS NOT RAISED ON OUR FARM. All of this product line will be set up on the website and labeled as Palmetto so that no one will be confused about what they are getting. The quality of this beef is very good and I’m sure you will be pleased with it.
Pastured Pantry is continuing to make weekly home deliveries and will continue to do so during the pandemic. Orders need to be placed by Saturday evening for delivery the following Friday or Saturday. Once you place the order, the order will be packed and invoiced on Wednesday evening. Orders must be paid for prior to delivery. On dairy week there have been so many orders that an extra delivery day has had to be added the last few weeks. We can’t thank you enough for your support and use of this service.
The dairy has notified us that we may see some shortages during this time. They did short us a few milks the last run but seemed to be well stocked in cheese and butter. The last run they also had some chocolate and butter milk available. Please check the calendar on the website to see when dairy has to be ordered.
The Port Royal Farmers Market remains closed. We are participating in a weekly drop that is being held at 600 Parris Rd Port Royal SC. The drops occur every Saturday between 9 and 11. This is a pre-ordered, pre-paid drop only; we aren’t allowed to bring anything extra to sell. Please have your orders placed by noon on Thursday at the latest to allow us time to pack and send out the invoices. All orders are packed first come first serve so it’s best to order early.
I know we’ve thrown a lot at you in this newsletter and most of it wasn’t fun. I’d like to end on a high note by teasing you a little. About a month ago Jesse and I made an out of state trip to a plant to discuss making some new products with our meat. We left some meat with the plant and will be heading back in the next couple of weeks to bring back some new items that we plan to offer. We’re excited about this and think that you will be also. We’ll tell you more next month but suggest you keep an eye out at the top of the ordering page on the website in the next couple of weeks.
Thanks again for your continued support of our farm. I know things have been tough lately but I’m sure it will get better soon. I can assure you that we will continue to work hard to provide your family with the best, most humanely raised, pastured meats available. The market here at the farm remains open every Monday AND Friday from 1 until 5. Feel free to come on out during market hours and take a look around. We may not be able to walk around with you but always encourage our customers to walk around the farm and ask us questions.
Annie, Marc, Amy & Jesse