WATERTOWN — Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the agricultural industry, like many others, has had many challenges to face over the past few months, like a disconnect in supply chains and milk dumping.
Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator Jay Matteson was joined at noon Thursday by Dr. Travis Maddock, an international consultant in the livestock industry and founder/owner of Dakota Global Consulting, LLC., for the first installment of the monthly Path to 2025 Farmers Luncheon Webinar Series.
Mr. Matteson and Dr. Maddock discussed the livestock industry and what it may look like in 2025 after the COVID-19 pandemic, raising questions like what farms should do now to sustain and grow their businesses and how to respond to the challenges they’ve encountered and take advantage of opportunities created. The webinars will occur on the fourth Thursday of each month at noon with various guest speakers.
“I’ve had such a great opportunity to travel and interact with folks and have great conversations about how we can move the livestock industry forward and how we can all keep doing what we need to be doing to feed this wonderful nation and feed the world,” said Dr. Maddock. “It’s not just as simple as saying we’re just feeding our fellow U.S. citizens, we feed everybody.”
Dr. Maddock has been to Jefferson County multiple times and has been helping with a feasibility study for local developer Mike Lundy on his USDA meat processing project that he’s trying to implement. He has over 20 years of practical experience in the livestock production and food manufacturing industries and advises companies both in the United States and internationally.
One of the main things Dr. Maddock stressed in his talk was a challenge to farmers to think more about diversification and other opportunities and next steps. With the virus sweeping the world, Dr. Maddock said it seeps into everything. The closure of restaurants caused basically the disappearance of the food service business overnight, so now, in Dr. Maddock’s opinion, producers need to get very creative in how they market products.
“COVID just put a ton of pressure on all of agriculture, no doubt about it; it disrupted markets around the world,” Dr. Maddock said. “What we saw was this kind of this dichotomy: we saw shortages of retail products — you’d go into a grocery store and the meat counter would be fairly bare, canned goods just simply wouldn’t be there, but then we have all this other stuff backing up over on us as the producers — we were dumping milk, we didn’t have milk in the grocery supermarket, but we had producers that were having to discard milk because all those processes in the middle got disrupted and we couldn’t get that product through the system.”
He went on to say that a lot of farmers felt disconnected from within the whole system because they had products that weren’t making it to consumers, something that has shone a lot of light on the process of getting commodities into consumer hands.
Dr. Maddock said he thinks one of the great outcomes of COVID will be people finding bright spots in the challenges and realizing the pandemic has taught them a few things about how disconnected the marketing system can be in agriculture.
“It’s going to put some pressure on me to find new ways to market my product and yeah, some folks are going to get hurt if they can’t adapt a little bit,” he said. “If you can’t think about being innovative then you’re going to have some issues.”
On his own beef cattle farm, Dr. Maddock said they are looking at strategic partnerships and working on getting certified for humane handling. They are also turning to a non-hormone treated cattle program and trying to add value that way. Because of what’s going on with the market disruption, they’re trying to position themselves to have a competitive advantage against other producers in the system.
Dr. Maddock encouraged farmers and ranchers to look deep within their business models to see what they’re doing right and wrong and where places are to create more margin.
“How can we utilize this kind of tragedy, or this chain of challenges, to better refine our business model to see what we’re doing and how do we do it a little bit better?” he questioned. “If you’re simply producing a commodity product and you’re not trying to create any extra value to that, then you’re going to get caught up in the situation. How am I going to break out of this commodity system and create more value on my farm or ranch? Those are the questions you should be asking yourselves.”
As for competing products like Impossible Burgers, Dr. Maddock says to let the free market system work itself out, that real beef is better, healthier and doesn’t have 45 ingredients. He said for producers to tell their stories about producing nutritious food and doing it in a sustainable and holistic manner.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I like having that challenge, I think it’s a great challenge for our industry.”
An important thing for producers to remember is they’re not alone, a notion that both Mr. Matteson and Dr. Maddock echoed in the webinar. Dr. Maddock said that very rarely do those in the industry run into folks in agriculture that aren’t willing to share their successes and how they got there. He encouraged people to ask good questions and not to feel like there isn’t someone out there willing to help.
“Here in the north country we have a really good partnership between Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, our economic development agencies and other organizations,” said Mr. Matteson. “If there’s somebody out there that wants to expand or start livestock processing and so on, there’s a whole team of people that will provide the technical assistance, the economic assistance and so on to make that happen — just make a phone call and there’ll be a bunch of people to chime in and try to help.”