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As with many agricultural producers across the country, Mike Sands of Bean Hollow Grassfed in Flint Hill, Virginia, has had to adapt his pasture-raised meat business in recent months.
Prior to the pandemic, about a third of Sands’ business was through restaurant sales. However, despite those sales nearly disappearing, demand for locally raised meat has been greater than ever.
“All of a sudden we had this huge interest in local production in part because a couple of our supermarkets started to have shortages,” Sands said. “Since literally the first week of March we’ve had just unbelievable demand such that frankly, we can’t keep up with it.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Sands has bought more storage freezers, rehabbed an old log cabin on his property to use as a farm store, and developed an online marketplace. Other producers across the region are facing similar spikes in their customer base and adapting to meet the demand.
But the efforts to build a more resilient food system were happening in the region well before the pandemic. Sands is one of seven pilot producers who are a part of the Sustainable Grazing Project, an effort of the American Farmland Trust in the Rappahannock Region of Virginia.
Jacob Gilley, a regional producer and the manager of the Sustainable Grazing Project, has been working with other regional stakeholders over the last year to find creative ways to help producers be more efficient and more profitable while also promoting sustainable and regenerative practices.
“Everybody knows that conservation is great, especially here in this region, being that we are in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” Gilley said. “But if those practices don’t provide a return on investment to producers, then it’s less likely that they’re going to be done.”
Many of the producers Gilley works with were already involved with local and diversified marketing approaches prior to the pandemic.
Jesse Straight, owner and operator of Whiffletree Farms, has his business around direct marketing and credits his ability to stay profitable while following strictly regenerative practices to that approach.
“Those are the game changers, the farm practices as well as the business model,” he said. “I would be wary of someone who is not doing both of those and having a successful business.”
Many producers feel this investment in non-conventional markets is what allowed them to pivot when the pandemic hit. But the increased demand for local meat has been met with processing bottlenecks.
As many larger slaughterhouses are shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks, smaller facilities are struggling to keep up. According to Gilley, while he used to schedule only a few weeks out with the slaughterhouse, dates are now three to four months out.
Sands said he is having similar issues. “We’re madly trying to find holes- if someone cancels at the local meat plant for a butcher order I have a standing request into my local processor say I’ll be over there even at three hours’ notice if someone cancels and I’ll bring a beef or sheep over as quickly as I can load them.”
When large slaughterhouses shut down and local markets stayed resilient, the pandemic brought to light vulnerabilities of the industrial food system. “[The pandemic] has in essence made really explicit the challenge of always focusing just on efficiency to the detriment of resilience,” Sands said.
Producers are now wondering if this increased awareness and interest in local production will continue after the pandemic ends.
Jeremy Engh, another pilot producer in the Sustainable Grazing Project, is offering new products to entice their new customers to stay. Yet, he’s still uncertain of the future: “How many of those folks will be back to Walmart in six months and focused on something else?”
Mary Sketch works with the National Rural Assembly at the Center for Rural Strategies. (Rural Strategies also publishes the Daily Yonder.) She holds a master’s degree from Virginia Tech in Fish and Wildlife Conservation and a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Brown University. Mary Sketch is currently a 1Hotels Fellow with E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs). E2 fellowship supported this article.