Meat processing industry, farmers face long waits, evolving dynamics

EDGEWOOD, Iowa — On the heels of an unprecedented 12 months, there are signs that the meat processing industry will be confronting challenges and implementing changes for years to come.

The extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the industry is evident at Edgewood Locker, which recently alerted customers that all slots for beef and pork custom processing in 2021 and 2022 have been filled.

Owner Luke Kerns explained that there has been a massive increase in those seeking custom processing, such as farmers looking to process beef to feed their own families or sell to neighbors. This largely has been fueled by the pandemic.

At the outset of the health crisis, many grocery stores either ran out of certain types of meat or limited the volume one could buy.

“There was a crazed panic with everyone buying toilet paper,” Kerns recalled. “That bled over into meat as well.”

Fearful that they couldn’t get their favorite meat at the grocery store, many people decided to contact a local farmer to purchase a whole animal or part of one. Small-town processors that accepted such small orders — such as Edgewood Locker — suddenly were inundated with orders.

As demand soared, keeping up with processing also was becoming harder. Edgewood Locker, for instance, reconfigured shifts and reduced hours to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“All these things kind of built up at once,” recalled Kerns. “It kept pushing us further and further and further back.”

In addition to custom processing, Edgewood Locker also provides services to wholesale and retail customers. Those customers are not facing the same kind of dramatic booking delays that face custom-processing customers, according to Kerns.

For local farmers, changes in the processing industry also have hit home.

Dubuque County Farm Bureau President Craig Recker said local lockers are “booked out pretty far.”

Cattle producers still can book with large packing companies with relatively minor waiting periods, but Recker said industry conditions are not favorable to farmers.

He explained that these companies do not have the harvesting capacity to process all of the animals that are ready. As a result, farmers have been forced to accept low prices just to get rid of the animals.

“Packers are making $300 to $400 a head,” Recker said. “Producers have been losing money or maybe making just a few dollars per head.”

Recker said these dynamics soon could change, however.

He noted that new processors are popping up around the country. On top of that, the difficulties of the pandemic compelled many producers to exit the industry altogether.

“Less cattle and more packing capacity means this situation might get better,” he said. “That might give (producers) some leverage.”