The coronavirus pandemic has upended normal food distribution networks, especially for meat. It has also left ranchers struggling, unable to get their cattle to market as the virus sickens workers in processing plants around the country and slows production. New Mexico ranchers are working on ways around these problems by going directly to consumers, and they’re hoping it will spark long-term change in the industry.
When Albuquerque’s Roadrunner Food Bank buys meat, it usually arrives processed and packed. But spokeswoman Sonya Warwick says the pandemic has more than doubled the time it takes to get some items, including meat. So they had to pivot.
"And so we basically purchased 10 heads of beef. I may not be using the right terminology there, excuse me!" she laughs. "I've not had to deal in that space before."
Roadrunner bought the cattle directly from ranchers, then had them butchered and processed at facilities in Roswell and in Colorado.
Republican State Rep. Rebecca Dow helped connect the food bank with the ranchers because both groups were struggling. She says retail prices for meat have jumped, but ranchers are getting less money for their animals because shutdowns at processing plants created a bottleneck in the whole system.
"The ranchers are being really undercut to the point where they've spent more raising the beef than they can sell it for," Dow says.
So Dow is connecting ranchers directly with buyers, like food banks, but also with individual consumers.
"It's gotta be over 60 head of cattle have been sold to New Mexicans," she says. "And this could be the first time that these folks are even consuming New Mexico beef because 90 percent of the beef that we produce goes out of state and is not sold locally."
That’s because beef processing in the U.S. has become concentrated at the so-called "Big Four:" Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef. Meat has to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture before it can be sold in retail stores, and New Mexico has just three USDA-inspected facilities, including that one in Roswell that Roadrunner used.
The way consumers can get around that USDA requirement is to buy the whole animal, live, and work with smaller custom processors. There are about 25 of those butchering operations in the state.
"Oh, we've always worked with custom processors, but it's just with friends and family here and there. We’ve always eaten our own beef," says Kevin Branum, a rancher in Grants working with fellow cattle producers to keep more of the entire cycle of beef production in New Mexico. They launched a co-op earlier this year, but he says the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated their efforts.
"Now we have people we have never heard from before reaching out and through Rep. Dow, she's been gathering a list of folks that want beef," he says, "and we've been working day and night just helping match people to ranchers in their area that have cattle that are ready to go into processing."
The pandemic has shifted people’s consumption habits, says New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte. People have gotten used to stocking up and eating more at home since restaurants have been closed. But grocery stores have also been limiting how much meat people could buy, and it’s more expensive.
"And so the consumers started wondering, where’s all the food? That's when people started recognizing that there was an issue in the supply chain," says Witte. A loud rooster crows in the background, as Witte is working remotely from his barn in Las Cruces during the pandemic.
He says two more USDA-inspected processors will open this year in Las Vegas and Mountainair, and there’s talk of creating a state inspection program, which could help local ranchers get their meat to retailers faster.
The state used to have its own inspection program, but it was nixed in 2008 during a budget crisis. "The executive branch decided that was one program that they could cut out because, in essence, the USDA could come in and do the inspections," Witte says. "The issue with that is USDA has limited staff."
Witte anticipates a push in the next legislative session to bring back the state inspection program, and hopes lawmakers will find it a worthwhile investment despite looming budget deficits.
"People are recognizing that food is something they can’t take for granted, and they’re starting to recognize that farmers and ranchers do a pretty good job in the state of producing food," he says.
Witte hopes a resurgence in buying local now will keep producers in business and create a more stable food system for New Mexicans in uncertain economic times.
The Agriculture Department has launched an online hub where consumers can connect directly with local producers and agricultural businesses.