Zeeland

Pandemic’s effect on meat processing, supply steers customers to locally-sourced food

Sometimes, a business just happens to be at the right place at the right time.

That is the case for the Raterink Family Farm, which opened a storefront in a home used as an office on the farm last November. Located at 2084 72nd Avenue in Zeeland Township and surrounded by housing developments, the third-generation dairy farm had considered diversification opportunities for a couple of years before settling on a model to sell their beef and that of family and friends directly to consumers. The plan quickly expanded to offer pork to supplement beef sales.

The Raterink Family Farm Meat Market is located next to the family's farm in Zeeland Township. Renovations produced a comfortable, modern farmhouse area for customers to browse and make purchases.

Then came COVID-19. Large-scale livestock processing facilities slowed production or closed altogether when numerous employees, who often work shoulder to shoulder, tested positive for the respiratory disease — in some cases dying from it. 
While many industries are struggling in the midst of the pandemic, tightening meat supplies at grocery outlets caused more people than ever to turn to small-scale, local stores and farms to find meat, produce, and other items.

Kelly Raterink, manager of Raterink Farm Store, says, “We have been selling things like crazy.” 

Local support

Local support for the farm store has brought customers from the surrounding development communities, many of whom were promoting the store before the Raterinks were even aware of the support. Other customers have come from farther away as word spread.
The Raterink family: Mike, Kelly, Brenda, Dennis and Amy
“We’ve gotten a ton of new customers through this (pandemic), and there are a lot of repeats, which is really exciting, too,” Raterink says.

Raterink believes growing demand for and interest in local food will be a catalyst for further expansion and economic opportunity for all types of local products.

“I think people are realizing that there are local sources, that the quality of the meat is just as good, if not better, and price-wise, it’s comparable, so they would rather help out local people, go to the farm and see the farm, and support their community,” she says.

Extended impact

Michigan State University Extension Specialists Ron Goldy, Bob Tritten, and Joyce McGarry back Raterink’s hunch in an article published in May. 

Without previous experience to draw from, the trio cites factors that may have a big impact for farm stores and roadside stands, especially for the remainder of 2020.

Long-distance travel may be replaced by shorter day trips, which could involve stops at roadside stands for travel snacks and produce to take home. Farm stands and U-pick may be travel destinations for some families exploring local attractions while incorporating farm visits and seasonal produce into vacation plans.

Unemployment may reduce consumer buying power. However, the reality of being unemployed mentally drives home the need to spend locally and support local business. Income losses also mean fewer dollars spent in restaurants, fueling the need and demand for more food prepared at home.

Retail shortages of fresh, frozen, and canned items have sparked a renewed interest in home preservation, prompting MSU Extension to offer an online course teaching the basics of food preservation to beginners. 

Growing pains

Like many new businesses, Raterink Farm Store experienced growing pains. In this case, the pain was caused by the public health crisis — something entirely out of the farm’s control. 
Raterink Family Farm Meat Market is seeing increased demand for locally-sourced meats.
Meat shortages and purchasing limits fueled panic among consumers, pushing them to seek out other buying options. Small-scale local butchers, farm stores, and meat markets scrambled to meet demand. Smaller scaled also means less space and fewer harvesting opportunities. Openings at local slaughterhouses filled quickly. Locally, butchers are already scheduling into 2021 in some instances.

Raterink Farm, like many others, hit a wall when U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected local slaughter plant, West Michigan Beef in Hudsonville, temporarily closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Not only did it push back all of the farms on the company’s processing

Even though the situation is frustrating, Raterink remains optimistic, especially since the plant recently reopened. She observes that more people are looking to the family farm store as their go-to source to stock freezers and pantries. 

They recently added local eggs and maple syrup to the inventory, along with cheese and butter made by the milk cooperative through whom the farm sells milk. This summer, there will be even more items, including whole chicken, lamb, honey, jam, produce, and pumpkins in the fall.

PRIME Act

Even without the coronavirus crisis, consolidation in the meat industry has led to most meat being processed at a handful of large-scale, highly efficient plants. This consolidation has left small-scale livestock producers with options for processing that are few and far between. 

A sign in the Raterink Family Farm Meat Market.
For individual meat cuts to be legally sold at restaurants and retail establishments, the animal must be slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility with an inspector on-site during slaughter. The alternative is custom-slaughtering facilities, where the animal owner consumes what is slaughtered for personal use. These facilities meet state regulations, along with basic USDA requirements, but the meat is not legal for resale. 

The PRIME Act, languishing in Congress for five years, returns control to the states to permit producers to sell meat processed at custom slaughterhouses within the state. Renewed interest and public push due to pandemic-induced meat shortages have served to wipe the dust from its pages and cause legislators to give H.R. 2859 and S. 1620 another look.

Passing the bill would not have entirely alleviated the meat shortages experienced in March, April, and May. However, it could ease pressure were another market disruption to occur. Passage and enactment of PRIME would significantly expand opportunities for small-scale livestock producers to sell meat by the cut instead of being limited to selling a whole or half animal to potential customers. 

Opponents of the bills voice concern over meeting federal food safety and inspection standards.

Raterink is optimistic that business will continue to grow through their store. 

“We plan to keep expanding the items we offer, and eventually start farm tours, community days, and education events,” she says. “We are surrounded by subdivisions, so there are a lot of people within a mile or two of our farm that we can reach, which is really interesting.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
 
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