By Kendall McGee | May 15, 2020 at 5:46 PM EDT – Updated May 15 at 7:19 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – If you’ve visited the meat section of a grocery store lately, you’ve likely seen less product on the shelves than usual.
As workers at meat processing plants across the country fall ill with the coronavirus, backups have inevitably emerged.
The Smithfield Tar Heel plant is the largest pork processing plant in the world, with 5,000 workers processing an average of 30,000 hogs a day. In the last few weeks, dozens of coronavirus cases have been reported there. While the North Carolina plant continues to operate, Smithfield’s plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was shut down after an outbreak involving hundreds of employees.
As a result, fewer animals are able to be processed, leaving farmers with an increasing number of market ready animals and higher feed bills to care for them in the meantime.
Juliann Janies of Red-Tailed Farm recently purchased 30 piglets from a breeder. The babies weren’t initially meant to come to Red Tailed Farm, however.
The breeder had 4,000 piglets in his barns contracted to be sent off to a larger finishing farm, but the finishing farm was unable to take them due to a backlog of market ready pigs unable to be processed into meat.
“These pigs were in a crisis,” said Janies. “Those barns are full of ready to market hogs with nowhere to go. Further down the line, the piglet producers have nowhere to put their piglets and they have more and more pregnant sows coming down the line and nowhere to put those babies. Producers are having to face really hard choices; ‘Do I continue to feed an animal that i’m losing money on every day?’ They’re left hanging by companies like Smithfield and Purdue who are closing their plants.”
With illnesses rising at the processing plants and shortages at the grocery store, people are turning to local producers. The problem is, even the small, family owned meat processing plants farmers have been using for years are backed up too. What used to take days to get an appointment, now takes a minimum of six weeks for Red Tailed Farm to get their livestock in to be processed.
“I’m also facing record high demands for my products and without getting my meat legally inspected and processed, packaged, I cant get it to my customers,” said Janies.
While its been a challenge to keep up, consumers relying more heavily of local farmers is undoubtedly a win for the local food movement.
“I think people are supporting anyone local. They’re trying to keep us all in business,” said restaurant owner and shopper Danielle Cousler. “Its right in your backyard. Its fresh, it tastes better, its not on a truck going across the us or being shipped in from China.”
Farmers like Janies are hopeful the momentum to shop local will continue long past the pandemic.
“I really hope so. It’s changed the mindset for a lot of people. I think people are seeing as they eat this fresh local food they feel better – ethically, they’re supporting local community farmers, and I think they feel better health-wise because they’re getting better nutrients from fresh food,” said Janies.
If you’d like to support local this weekend, you can visit the Wilmington Farmers Market at Wrightsville Beach Brewery Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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