butcher shop

The uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 interruption of production at larger processing plants as well as the near collapse of the hog market created an unprecedented demand for small-shop meat processors. 

The COVID-19 lockdown and its continuing effect has put many businesses on their heels. But not small-shop meat processors.

The calendar is full at Fred’s Meat & Processing in Ashley, Ill.

“We went from always being busy to something unprecedented and we don’t know

how it will turn out,” said Jay Gajewski, who owns the Washington County business along with his brother, Matt. “We were typically four to six weeks out from the call to when we get them in. We are now scheduling into March 2021.”

The Gajewskis were forced to bring on three more hires, essentially expanding the workforce by a third.

Edgewood Locker, a processor in northeastern Iowa, has had similar demand, beginning in March. In a normal year, a steer or hog would be scheduled for about two weeks out. Ironically, the company had just had a promotion on quarters and halves.

“We were just going into our slower time of year, trying to figure out how to drive more business,” said part-owner Luke Kerns. “Then all of a sudden the phones started ringing off the hook from farmers. Meat prices started to go up at the grocery stores, and all these people who may have bought a quarter or half a hog and hadn’t done it in years are calling their farmer friend.”

When the regional grocery chain Hy-Vee began limiting meat purchases at its stores, business exploded.

“We’re an hour away from a Hy-Vee, so you wouldn’t think that would impact us too much,” Kerns said. “But people started coming from Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Waterloo and Cedar Falls. A lot of folks came here who hadn’t previously.”

The company eventually decided to close its doors to consumers, limiting retail sales to curbside service.

“We were doing it all personal shopping,” Kerns said.

Another wave came when large packing plants began shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The near collapse of the hog market added to the strain. Some farmers were selling hogs for $25 or even giving them away to avoid euthanasia.

“We very quickly ended up being booked through the end of the year,” Kerns said. “Right now, if you want to bring in a beef, we’re into the last week of May of next year. On hogs, there are some slots left in late March.”

Kerns said the business has had a difficult time hiring new employees, partly due to the federal stimulus package that added $600 per week to unemployment payments.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Meat and Poultry Processing Bureau, which governs processing within the state of Iowa, said that it is fielding numerous calls related to expanding small-scale processing.

Gajewski went from doing 15 to 17 beef in a week to 25. Likewise, pork processing nearly doubled, from 10 to 12 a week to 18 or 20 now.

“My brother and I own it, so we put in a few more hours,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out the best way to be most efficient. We’re maxed out on what we can do because of the space in our cooler. We only have so much space.”

As more states have eased lockdown restrictions, panic buying has been reduced. Gajewski believes things may begin to return to normal, but he understands a spike in coronavirus cases could quickly change the rush.

“There were two weeks there where we were booking 50 beef a week, if not more,” he said

“But we’ve already noticed that the calls have slowed down.”

Three families who purchased Farmers Packing Inc. in February got a hectic introduction to the business. The Bodnar, Kelsey and Vallette families opened their doors in March, right when the virus was ramping up.

The newly named Country Home Processing in Albion, Ill., was hit with demand that forced them to hire more workers.

“We have tripled the amount of work,” said Rilee Vallette. “Our customer butchering is out until next February.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.