At Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, the beef cattle are grass-fed, pasture-raised and ultimately available for purchase at the farm store. Demand for the farm’s beef, along with free-range chicken and pork, has never been higher.
“People are really coming out of the woodwork and really demanding this product,” said Jennifer Hashley, who manages the farm with her husband, Pete Lowy. “I think we’re up 500 percent over last year in terms of sales.”
That extraordinary uptick in sales is evidence of yet another pandemic-related supply chain disruption. Consumers, already wary of supermarkets, are turning to local farms, as coronavirus outbreaks close some of the nation’s massive meat packing plants and traditional stores limit meat purchases. Local livestock farmers see this as a moment not just to benefit their bottom line, but to leverage changing consumer habits and highlight an industrialized meat production system that’s long made it impossible to compete on prices.
"Eighty-five percent of the meat supply system is controlled by four major suppliers,” said Hashley. “There are so few processing plants, a lot of vertical integration and consolidation of the industry, and — because they can garner such large economies of scale throughout the whole supply chain — it’s really challenging for a small-scale producer to make the economics work well.”
She said what she pays to buy one baby pig to raise on the farm is more than the price of an entire pig’s worth of pork at the grocery store; raising a single chicken costs the farm about $15.
"So we have to charge $7, $8 a pound for chicken just to be able to earn a return to the farm, and we pay high wage labor," she said. "We pay $15-20 an hour to staff."
But right now price doesn't appear to be a deterrent for the relative flood of consumers seeking supermarket alternatives. The bigger challenge for local livestock producers is keeping up with demand in a region with a limited supply: only about one percent of the meat consumed in New England is produced here, according to research from the Friedman School of Nutrition and Science Policy at Tufts University.
"This is a moment where there is an opportunity for growth of the local food system, and I think it will occur," said Andy Burnes, president of the Livestock Institute, a livestock farming advocacy organization in southeastern Massachusetts.
The Livestock Institute runs Meatworks in the town of Westport, one of only three USDA-certified slaughterhouses in Massachusetts. Compared to the big processing plants in other parts of the country, it’s tiny – with a just a handful of people working around one large table. The plant opened a year and a half ago with help from the state, and it attracts livestock farmers from as far away as Long Island, New York. Bookings are nearly filled through the end of the year. The plant is on track to process about 3,000 animals this year, and Burnes would like to expand that capacity.
“Is the surge that we’re seeing right now, is that a one-time COVID related? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think that people today are so much more understanding of the issues related to the food supply than they were before.”
But even if the pandemic accelerates the trend toward buying locally produced food, farmers still face the limits of geography: Massachusetts is a small state with expensive real estate.
“We have the highest cost of agricultural land in the country,” said Carrie Chickering-Sears, who runs the UMass Extension 4-H Youth Development Program and works with young people interested in agriculture.
In a state where the average age of a farmer is 57 years old, she said the industry would benefit from a shot of youth, but — unless they inherit the family farm — the next generation faces a daunting reality.
“I have a lot of 4-H-ers with the dream of owning a farm, but you need at least $2 million to start up a farming operation today.”
The high cost of doing business, combined with competition in the supermarkets, means farmers have little choice but to cater to a niche market.
“Farmers can make money doing this,” said Jennifer Hashley, who runs farmer training programs through the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University. “I think it’s just a matter of finding the customer base that has enough disposable income to be able to afford the cost of production and leave room for profit for the farm.”
The pandemic is unlikely to impact the price of meat from local farms — where there’s plenty of room for social distancing — but it could help level the playing field as the relentless spread of the coronavirus forces the nation’s top meat producers to adopt new ways of doing business.
“The industrialized food system is going to reinvent itself,” predicted Burnes. “You’re not going to be able to buy hamburger at Market Basket for $4 a pound. You might be up in the $5 to $6 a pound [range]. Now when you get to five to six dollars a pound, all of a sudden, the curve to local food gets more attractive.”