WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI — As COVID-19 gripped Michigan, Dexter-area farmers Sarah Schloss and Colleen Dauw had more than just their children and loved ones to to look out for.
As independent livestock producers on family farms, they suddenly struggled to find a place to take their goats, lambs, cattle and other animals for slaughter.
COVID-19 ripped through large meatpacking plants and some closed down, diverting animals to smaller facilities that locals rely on and pushing them out, they said.
“Farmers started panicking and making appointments a year or two ahead of time for animals they thought they were going to want to have processed, but often didn’t even have yet,” Schloss said.
Her farm felt the squeeze of an increasingly consolidated meat industry that sputtered as homebound consumers needed it most. Four meatpacking giants control 85% of the beef market, with the same number of companies dominating 70% of pork and 54% of poultry, according to a White House fact sheet.
In response, Schloss and Dauw put their heads together and founded Washtenaw Meats, an innovative company that helps small famers nab slaughterhouse slots while marketing their meat directly to local buyers.
They weren’t the only Washtenaw County entrepreneurs to seize upon a strained supply chain to offer localized solutions, in the process reshaping how meat gets to Ann Arbor-area restaurants and dinner tables.
The panic of the pandemic may have birthed a new era for local meat.
“I do see the large-scale meat industry deteriorating in front of our eyes, and I see the small, local, regional meat industry proliferating,” said Justin Dalenberg, restauranteur and owner of Manchester Market, a grocery store, butcher shop and bakery in Manchester, in southwestern Washtenaw County.
The business took the place of an abandoned supermarket last year, in part to bring steers raised a few miles away to the menu of Dalenberg’s Grand River Brewery and Doll n’ Burgers eateries, cutting out a series of middlemen while boosting Michigan beef brands.
Now, the people behind Manchester Market and Washtenaw Meats are among the local farmers, butchers and entrepreneurs rising to the challenge posed by the coronavirus. The end result could be more chances for you to eat meat from animals raised in local pastures.
“The pandemic has illuminated some of the issues around the food chain and how it’s somewhat fragile, and we’re pretty proud to be able to meet some of those shortfalls,” Dauw said.
COVID rocks consolidated meat industry. Local farmers feel the effects
As Washtenaw County’s then-local foods coordinator with the Michigan State University Extension, Jae Gerhart had a front-row seat to farmers’ struggles when COVID hit.
Her phone began to ring. “What am I going to do? I’m going to have to put these animals down. I can’t afford to keep feeding them,” she heard.
“It became very clear there was a problem,” she said.
Read more: Ann Arbor-area farmer’s retail shop sees surge in demand, but slaughterhouse availability is tight
Gerhart sees the issue as a natural endpoint of decades of consolidation.
If a massive facility processing thousands of animals a day goes down, there’s no safety net, she said, and smaller farmers are pushed out, even from “these struggling mom and pop slaughterhouses that are still hanging on.”
The issues have been brewing for a while.
Jeannine Schweihofer, a senior meat quality extension educator and an adjunct associate professor at MSU, has been working with farmers on direct marketing of their products since buying smaller individual cuts or bundles of local meat directly from farms or at local markets became trendy more than a decade ago.
“That’s when, especially in southeast Michigan, there seemed to be a shortage of USDA-inspected facilities logistically in a reasonable area,” she said, referencing the kind of processing necessary for retail sale. In Washtenaw County, there’s a particular need for slaughterhouses, Schweihofer said.
Farmers have now adjusted to COVID-related back-ups and no longer expect to make slaughter appointments with short notice. Some facilities are scheduled one to two years out, for animals that haven’t been conceived yet, Schweihofer said.
The federal government has also taken notice of the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic. In January, the White House said it will devote $1 billion to independent meat and poultry producers nationwide.
USDA grants have already flowed to existing Michigan facilities for expansions, Schweihofer said. “This is something a lot of people are taking seriously and trying to implement.”
Two local farmers find ‘a better way of doing things’
In Washtenaw County, Schloss and Dauw weren’t waiting for anyone to solve their problems.
Schloss wrote a script and dialed the meat processers she had worked with for years, pleading with them to establish appointments.
At that point, the facilities wanted to work with farmers that could make the guarantee they’d show up with a fixed number of animals, a challenge for Washtenaw County producers with small herds or flocks facing the prospect of more than an hour’s drive each way to reach the nearest USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.
With Washtenaw Meats, the two farmers were able to promise to fill the spots. How? By teaming up with a collective of fellow livestock producers, to ensure there were always animals ready to go.
Not only that, but the business provides a service to farmers by offering to take care of marketing, retail sale and distribution of the meat.
“It’s challenging to be both excellent at animal husbandry, excellent at bookkeeping, excellent at marketing, excellent at distribution. So our idea was to put together a way to assist farmers with some of the processes that are cumbersome, or just stopgaps to get their product to the people,” Dauw said.
The pair have a web store, where customers can pursue locally-raised lamb, poultry, pork and other meats identified by farm, with local pick-up options.
As grocery store shelves at times laid empty, the demand for their products skyrocketed, and many customers never went back to buying their meat in supermarkets, Schloss said.
In the end, the business solves problems both farmers already struggled with, while opening up new avenues for consumers.
“Sarah and I have driven enough to these USDA (facilities) with cars full of children with few enough animals, that we just have decided there has got to be a better way to do some of these things,” Dauw said.
A butcher shop renaissance in Manchester
The pandemic posed different challenges for Dalenberg, who cut his teeth locally as executive chef at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor and has consulted for a slew of fledgling eateries, eventually taking over at Jackson-based Grand River Brewery.
“I’ve been cutting whole steers for about 10 years,” he said, a practice he’s integrated into his restaurants. But with demand rising, he and his butchers were supplementing their stock with boxed beef.
When COVID hit, prices “just got absolutely insane,” he said. “We decided to take what we knew how to do and expand it.”
At first, the restauranteur explored locating his butcher shop in Jackson, closer to his breweries and restaurants, but the space available wasn’t large enough. Dalenberg used to ride his road bike from Saline to Manchester, and noticed the local supermarket there had shut down.
That’s when Manchester Market was born — a combination grocer, butcher shop and artisan bakery that serves Dalenberg’s growing farm-to-table empire.
Read more: ‘This filled a gaping hole’: Abandoned grocery store transformed into Manchester Market
Dalenberg partners directly with black angus cattle ranchers, like Noggle and Lane View Farms, some just minutes away. They take steers to a slaughterhouse near Kalamazoo. Then, Dalenberg’s staff pick them up, aging and butchering the meat in Manchester, where he said butchers are lining up to hone their craft.
“We want to really put the farmer center stage and really push those Michigan beef brands,” he said, pointing out a lot of supermarket meat comes from Iowa or Nebraska.
It also makes business sense for him, as he’s able to vertically integrate. If he bought his products conventionally, the animals would go from a farmer, to a broker, to a processing facility, to a cutting room, to a distributor — a process that can takes weeks with the meat sealed in Cryovac packaging.
“The difference is that it has now touched five to six to seven different people’s hands, and each time that meat goes through their hands there’s got to be margin made,” he said. “I’m cutting out all the middlemen.”
Dalenberg also has his eyes set on expansion and hopes Manchester Market will become a USDA-inspected processing facility within a year, permitting it to sell directly to restaurants and grocery stores.
That will also allow farmers to have their meat cut at the market and then sold at local farmer’s markets or through their own channels, he said. That gives them an alternative to taking their animals to auction and lets the product be sold in their own backyard.
“What we found during the pandemic is that our consolidated … meat industry failed us because we consolidated so much that when a major event happened there was no infrastructure to be able to service regional need.
“Globalization and consolidation maybe work for some industries like automotive and plastic manufacturing but when it comes to food obviously the fresher, the more local, the better,” he said.
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