As Covid-19 hobbles industrial meat, small producers are having a moment

They're more resilient and better able to take care of their workers. But their products cost more and are less convenient to get—the two things Americans value most.

Chloe Johnson and her husband Craig Scariot did not grow up on farms. He studied finance and she has an IT job, but in 2015, they bought a 100-year-old ranch in Longmont, Colorado, stocked it with chickens, pigs and sheep, and built a business selling organic, grass-fed meat directly to consumers.

Running SkyPilot Farm hasn’t been easy or made them rich. But the pair are having unexpected success during the current crisis, which has them cautiously optimistic about the future of local, sustainable agriculture.

The commercial meat industry, highly centralized and largely controlled by four companies — Cargill, JBS, Smithfield and Tyson — has been rocked by the novel coronavirus. As the virus spread to some of the country’s largest meat processing facilities, it killed workers and forced plants to shut down for deep cleaning.  Nearly 5,000 meat packing employees have contracted the disease at 115 meat and poultry processing facilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With animals lining up for slaughter and nowhere to take them, the price of beef and pork has plummeted and livestock producers have resorted to euthanizing surplus stock.

In total, the pandemic could bleed the beef industry of an estimated $13.6 billion, a study by Oklahoma State University concluded, prompting President Trump to issue an executive order on April 28 calling for plants to remain open.“Without immediate assistance,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association begged in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, “our industry may suffer enough loss to push some cattle producers past the point of rescue.”

Beside a pen filled with baaing sheep and rowdy three-week-old lambs, Johnson and Scariot, wearing mud-caked boots and sweat-stained trucker hats, described an altogether different reality. “It’s only gotten busier,” Scariot said, scratching the ears of a Blue Heeler cattle dog at his feet. Since the outbreak, sales at SkyPilot have increased about 400 percent and the customer base has tripled.

A herd of sheep are ushered to a new area of grass at SkyPilot Farm in Longmont, Colorado.

While the industrial market is facing ruin, small-scale producers are seeing a heyday. In the U.S., more than 167,000 farms sell $8.7 billion worth of meat and produce directly to consumers, restaurants and retailers each year, reports the USDA. With some farmers markets closed due to the pandemic, many have shifted their businesses online, and farms across the country report that customers are following in droves.

“Inventory management is the hardest part,” Johnson said. “We were growing slowly and steadily over the years. Now we’re not able to keep up with demand.”

Tucked between Boulder and Longmont, SkyPilot sits within reach of an affluent customer base that lately has been eager for an excuse to leave the house. The location is a double-edged sword, though. Farms farther from town might not share its convenience, but manage to avoid the high land prices that help explain why a pound of SkyPilot ground pork costs about $3 more than what you find at the grocery store.

The farm sprawls across 43 acres of alfalfa, with 500 chickens, 550 sheep (100 more lambs are expected this season) and dozens of pigs. Their house, a relic of the 1890s, stands in a cluster with the sheep corrals and hog pens beneath towering cottonwood trees. No corner escapes the bleating of the lambs.

In the time before Covid-19, maybe six customers would stop by for pickups each day. Lately, they see as many as 30. Scariot bought a shipping container at auction, spruced it up with windows and a side door, added a large freezer and refrigerator, and voila: the farm stand. Inside, cartons of eggs, bags of coffee, jars of honey, jugs of milk, wheels of cheese and brown paper sacks filled with various cuts of meat are labeled and awaiting customers. The coffee, milk, cheese and honey are all new since the outbreak, contributed by other producers who recognize the benefit of selling from a single hub.

At first, Johnson said, there was a rush of people stocking up in bulk. Since then, orders have lightened, but she still puts the kibosh on most requests of more than two-dozen eggs to ensure there’s enough to go around. One sack awaiting pickup is for a caterer who shifted his business to prepared meal delivery. It includes breakfast sausage links, spiced lamb and pork sausages, bacon, lamb chops, two racks of lamb and five dozen eggs.

Although small-scale producers may have escaped the fallout of the shuttered commercial meat packing facilities, they are not immune to bottlenecks. Processing — butchering and packaging — meat requires a costly USDA license, and facilities that serve small operations like SkyPilot are lacking. In mid-April, Scariot’s local processor caught fire and shut down. Now he drives three hours to the nearest butcher he trusts with his lamb.

The fact that processing infrastructure is built to serve producers who raise tens of thousands, not hundreds, of animals has hamstrung local ranchers for years.

“We’ve centralized our food system so much that it’s made it impossible for the little guy to survive,” said Nick Levendofsky, of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “Grocery store prices have been going up, but that doesn’t mean the cattleman or farmer is making any more money.” The scale and quantity-over-quality practices of factory farming have allowed large packing companies to keep costs down and maintain a stranglehold on the system. Woe to those who try to compete.

One thing small farms and processors have that the major producers don’t, however, is adaptability, and the current moment has shown how quickly and effectively they can pivot.

“Demand is extraordinary, even after I’ve increased production by 25 percent,” said Joe Cloud, who owns T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Cloud processes meat for ranchers who sell directly to restaurants and consumers through community-supported agriculture programs and farmers markets. Before the outbreak, nearly half his customers supplied restaurants where chefs do complicated things with shanks, racks and filets. When those closed, the market shifted overnight to consumers who, by and large, are looking for simple, protean ground beef.

His staff of 24 hasn’t had a case of Covid-19, but he has temporarily sent home two butchers who are at high risk, stocked up on gloves and sanitizer and is shelling out hazard pay to his remaining employees. “These big plants are being forced to shut down, they slaughter 6,500 animals a day — six times my annual output,” he said. “A plant like mine is inefficient and our meat prices are higher, but there’s a lot more resiliency.”

For Scariot and Johnson, the very things that make their operation inefficient — its limited output and environmental philosophy — are what make it so attractive. Especially during the unease of the pandemic, “people want good, healthy food and a connection with their producer,” Scariot said. “And they don’t want to go into the grocery store,” Johnson added.

SkyPilot specializes in regenerative agriculture practices that seek to improve the land they grow on, rather than degrade it. Scariot grazes his sheep across more than 600 acres of privately-owned land, trimming lawns as his animals feed. During the growing season, the chickens are in constant movement, pecking at grubs and leaving behind nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which bolsters the pasture that feeds the other animals. The result is a more nutritious and arguably better tasting product that requires minimal intervention from machines, and no antibiotics, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

Chloe Johnson, co-owner of SkyPilot Farm, carries a basket of eggs. Each night, she and her husband are washing and packing some 40 dozen for the surging number of customers.

Over the past months, “A lot of people have been exposed to a new way of thinking about food,” Scariot said. For some consumers, at least, the crisis has shown that meat doesn’t actually come from a store. The question is whether the change in perspective will outlive the pandemic. “I wasn’t worried about the virus itself, but I was worried about the economic fallout. Are people willing to spend a premium on our product?”

So far, the answer has been a resounding yes, but there is cause for skepticism of a larger shift. Our food system is an enormous ship to turn, and consumers tend to prioritize convenience over the benefits of keeping a dollar local or knowing where their food comes from. This may be even more true in a future with a depressed economy.

Still, new customers continue to kick up dust on the long dirt driveway leading to the SkyPilot farm stand, and the inventory is in constant flux. Each morning, Johnson stuffs the refrigerators with more bags than before, and finds them empty at the end of each day. Tonight, before they head to bed, the couple still needs to pack tomorrow’s orders, update the website, and wash and pack 40 dozen eggs. There’s also a good chance a few more lambs will be born, adding voices to the cacophony and promise to the future.

Lead image: Craig Scariot watches as Chloe Johnson returns a lamb to its pen after vaccinating it. The couple, who own SkyPilot Farm, a small, sustainable meat operation in Longmont, Colorado, are experiencing a boom in business as the coronavirus hobbles the industrial meat industry. Photo by Rachel Woolf

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