“This was the first time in many people’s lives… to enter a grocery store and see the meat freezer empty,” says Carol Ptak, co-founder of the Demand Driven Institute and co-owner of Gryphon Ranch in the Pinal mountains.
Temporary shutdowns and continued slowdowns of meatpacking plants due to Covid-19 outbreaks have slowed the distribution of beef into U.S. stores and restaurants.
Prices went up and concern over shortages spiked consumer purchasing, which extended the phenomenon of empty freezers and reinforced fears.
“It is not a shortage,” explains Cassie Lyman of Lyman Ranches. “It’s a process problem.”
Cassie and her husband Jared Lyman, a sixth-generation rancher, raise Angus-cross cattle and four sons on the north shore of Roosevelt Lake. They graze their cattle on public land and sell it to the commercial market where it is processed into the beef and distributed to stores and restaurants.
According to the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, 85% of U.S. cattle that ends up as beef for human consumption is processed through the plants of four large corporations.
The remaining 15% is handled by smaller USDA-certified packing houses. There are six of these in Arizona. Many had temporary closures due to the Corona Virus concerns. Now open, there is a backlog of beef to process.
For local ranchers, there is a “silver lining” to this impact on the meatpacking industry. The public has become more interested and knowledgeable about their food sources. Demand for local beef is up.
Three Gila County ranchers sell Arizona grass-fed beef directly to their communities and 150 ranchers are doing it state-wide.
“We’ve sold every animal mature enough to be butchered,” Carol says. “They want to know what’s in their beef and they want to buy local.”
Local Beef Production
Carol and Jim Ptak have been selling Gryphon Ranch beef directly to consumers in Gila County since 2014. Customers for their grass-fed, grass-finished, humanely raised and killed cattle come from Phoenix 70%, Tucson 20%, and Globe 10%.
The Ptaks maintain certifications to convey to consumers their methods, and run ranch tours to show them firsthand.
“A customer that is educated is more likely to buy,” says Carol.
According to state law, the smallest portion they can sell to a consumer is ¼ animal. Gryphon Ranch employs a mobile butcher and Carol has him booked through October. The process is long and labor intensive. 2-3 weeks to hang. A week to cut and wrap.
With sales already 25% higher than last year; Gryphon Ranch has been partnering with some of our surrounding ranchers, who also ranch grass-fed and grass-finished, but typically sell at auction and have never sold to the consumer.
”There’s a lot of work that goes into direct sales,” Carol says. “We’ve made that investment.”
Lyman Ranches also sells directly to consumers, in whole and half-beef portions and while consumer sales are up, they are unlikely to exceed 10% of the overall business.
“The U.S. Forest Service regulates how many animals you can have on your land,” Cassie explains,” and the age of those animals dictates direct sales.”
Brief History of Meatpacking
Before the Civil War, beef production looked much the way it does today for direct-sell ranchers. Local farmers raised cows. Local butchers prepared the meat for local consumers.
Beef production took a turn in 1881 with the introduction of the refrigerated rail car. This made it possible to ship carcasses around the country and opened national markets. International markets followed with the use of refrigerated ships; it became an industry.
Like many industries in the early 1900s, the meatpacking industry was known to overwork their employees and failed to maintain adequate safety measures.
The Jungle, a novel by Upton Sinclair was published in 1906, and exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry to the public, which resulted in public pressure on the U.S. Congress to improve sanitary conditions.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) passed in 1906. Among other regulations, it requires USDA inspection of animals before slaughter and post-mortem and sanitary standards for all slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities.
While FMIA and other acts passed that year were effective in addressing sanitary conditions in the food supply, they also hastened the consolidation of the meatpacking industry, and have done little to address working conditions.
Meat Industry Today – Covid-19 Clusters
The meatpacking industry currently employs nearly 500,000 employees, mostly undocumented workers and recent immigrants, doing exhausting dangerous work for low wages at great risk to their health.
Meatpacking plants around the world have been particularly hard hit by Covid-19. The abnormally cold environment, the fast-paced physically demanding work, and prolonged close proximity to other workers increase the risks for infectious spread.
On April 28, 2020, the Defense Production Act was invoked by executive order classifying meat processing to be critical infrastructure for the protection of food sources. Plants re-opened with precautionary measures that lower their output and meat packers went back to work.
To allow for social distancing, meat processors have slowed down production lines and staggered shifts to limit it the number of employees in a facility at one time.
However, crowded living conditions and group transport make it difficult for meat packers to social distance at home or to and from the plants and lack of healthcare or a dollar to spare cause many employees to ignore early symptoms and keep working.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, 1906
Low Impact on Local Ranchers
“It takes 18-24 months to raise a cow from start to finish,” explains Cassie Lyman. “Given the natural cycle of birth and raising, we don’t have finished beef available at this time of year.”
Cassie Lyman says the Covid-19 pandemic has had little impact on their ranching operation.
Currently cattle are being fed in local pastures thanks to the heavy rain. Most calves will wean in the fall, go to a feedlot until they’re full-grown. The few that do get slaughtered at this time are cold cows (old mothers), and get ground.
“Even for those,” she notes, “there’s a two-month wait.”
When in town the Lymans respect CDC guidelines and wear masks. Otherwise, their lives are largely unchanged.
“We are usually socially distanced,” says Cassie, “lots of working in nature.“
She adds that one good thing that has come out of this “whole Covid thing” is how it’s caused people to think about having an animal or a garden, and time to “cherish family and the people around you.”
Ashlee Mortimer is Communications Director for the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, a non-profit grassroots organization with a main goal of protecting Arizona ranches and food sources through legislation and education. Her job is to educate the public about where beef comes from and to share information with member ranchers about the best ways to raise beef.
There’s been a disconnect with where our food comes from,” says Ashlee “now ranchers and consumers are coming together.”
These days Ashlee is busier than ever, interacting with the public on Facebook and finding online venues for continued education for the ranchers.
“Our pillars haven’t changed with the Corona Virus,” she says, “They’ve elevated.”
Big Impact on Global Business
Carol hopes that when this crisis is over, people will continue to support local ranchers.
“The money stays in your locality,” she says, “that’s really important.”
For Carol, the current crisis is having a big impact on her consultation business, which provides face-to-face education of demand-driven methods to enterprises around the world.
On a business trip in April, she caught the last flight out of Columbia, just as its borders closed. Within five days, 200 events were cancelled. She and her partner had to adapt. Very quickly.
“That’s the only way a business will survive,” says Carol. “You have to be able to adapt faster than the change that is coming at you.”
A traveler, Patti Daley came to Globe in 2016 to face the heat, follow love, and find desert treasure. She writes in many formats and records travel scraps and other musings at daleywriting.com.