Agriculture at the Front Line
Although those involved in producing the food on your dinner plate may not be featured on the nightly news like healthcare providers are, they are also on the front lines of the pandemic, ensuring supply-chain commitment and food security for Americans. When movement restrictions were announced, fear drove the behavior of the American consumer. Grocery stores were flooded with shoppers and shelves of home necessities were left bare. There was also a deficit in fresh and frozen meat counters as consumers sought protein sources. Thankfully, the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency deemed agriculture “essential,” enabling agriculturalists and those involved with the supply chain to remain in operation. This includes farmers, ranchers, their employees, veterinarians, food processing plants, truck drivers delivering goods, and state and federal employees ensuring food safety and quality.
Social distancing and the recommendation of no more than 10 persons in one place at a time have led restaurants and some other food businesses to halt normal operations. Some of these operators have shifted their business models to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Drive-thru and curbside pick-up opportunities from phone-in and online orders now comprise a vital part of these restaurants’ business. This change has permitted some retailers to capitalize on their wholesale providers and market vast home goods – from toiletries to fresh produce – through their retail drive-thru markets along with their prepared food services. This opportunist mindset of agriculturalists and business owners is a true testament of why Americans will make it through this pandemic together and become stronger than before.
Local Food Producers – Hometown Heroes
In the midst of the pandemic, more than ever, consumers are shopping locally for their food supply. Local markets have been flooded with consumers; however because of significant demand, supply disruption and virus spread, some businesses have not been able to keep up.
In some communities, small meat lockers have become a source of protein for a segment of the public desiring limited interface with large retail outlets and traditional purchasing venues. Local meat lockers may thrive during the pandemic because they provide an outlet for livestock producers to provide custom and private supplies of protein to the local public. Because local meat lockers often operate with only a few employees, they have been able to remain open to supply protein at their normal or higher volumes.
Pandemic Protein Market Disruption
Large and consolidated protein processors like JBS, Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield are vital, providing the major volume of harvest capacity for the United States. Their uninterrupted operation is required in order to sustain major domestic and export meat marketing channels and keep livestock producers operating at normal capacity, which also provides business for service personnel such as nutritionists and veterinarians.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the United States remains the largest fed-cattle industry and the largest producer of primarily high-quality, grain-fed beef for domestic and export use. However, with high-end restaurants closing, there has been a downshift demand for middle meats. Restaurants, hotels and institutions have historically been a major purchaser of these premium cuts. Given many states with “stay-at-home” orders, the normal demand is halted. These temporary closures add pressure on the meat supply chain and ultimately the livestock supply chain and their commodity providers such as corn and soy. This leads to price volatility within the complex food system and a whirlwind of market conundrums.
Protein Processors Attempt to Secure Supply by Monitoring Workforce
Unfortunately, meat processing plants have already experienced some disruptions in the supply chain. Some have had to temporarily slow or halt production to ensure worker health, and others have begun monitoring employees’ temperatures daily and increased sanitization measures to prevent infection and spread. Some have also added additional break rooms to permit social distancing. The health and safety of these food suppliers’ employees is paramount. If the food supply chains maintain the labor capacity to run as normal, the pandemic will have a reduced toll on volatilities within animal and food markets.
Agriculturalists Are Hard Working and Resilient
Despite disruptions in the protein processing chain, agriculturalists are continuing to provide a supply of goods for the processing and prepared food industries. Agriculturalists are all too familiar with social distancing as it is part of their normal production practice. While they shelter in place, farmers and ranchers continue to sow seeds, provide milk, calve cows, prepare for breeding season, tend to broiler and layer houses, and keep swine operations in full swing.
Many of these producers are quickly managing risks and preparing for market mishaps in advance. They are capitalizing on technologies that add value to labor limitations. They are focusing on strengths and outsourcing identified weaknesses. While remaining “essential” to the American people, they are being avid accountants by calculating breakevens and managing costs. Regardless of social distancing, agriculture can hang its hat on the fact that people need to eat, even in the face of a potential recession.
Please thank an agriculturalist, including farmers, ranchers, plant processors, line workers, service personnel and those involved within each step of the supply chain because, even as they navigate the effects of this virus, they are ensuring a continuous, safe and quality food supply in the midst of their own battles at home and at work.
Dr. Megan Webb is a fourth-generation beef producer from Burlington, W.Va. who has dedicated her career to serving agriculture and the beef industry. A 2012 graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in Animal Science and a Certificate in Meat Science, Webb served internships with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Washington D.C. and in Denver, Colo. She also interned with Meat and Livestock Australia and Australia Agricultural Company (AAco). Megan’s national and international beef experience led her to conduct an international meat science research project during her Masters at Colorado State University. She continued her pursuit in meat science while completing her Ph.D. at South Dakota State University. When Webb isn’t writing or working on the family operation, she is supporting youth with their 4-H or FFA projects and providing state beef checkoffs with producer educational advancement opportunities through contractual efforts.