Demand for local beef rising

Empty shelves at a Walmart in New York state. Mark Gutman/Batavia Daily News

WATERTOWN — Right now, the saying “No Farmers - No Food” seems all too relevant as shelves are emptying at a rate lifelong farmers have never seen before. They’re still at it though, working to meet the demand and reassuring consumers that the food chain is in full operation.

There are, at least, two interesting developments that stand out to farmers as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. A significant portion of raw milk is being diverted away from plants that make cottage cheese, yogurt and other cultured products — and instead going toward making fluid milk.

“This is a significantly rare event,” said Jay M. Matteson, agricultural coordinator at Jefferson County Economic Development. “In my lifetime, I have never seen store shelves consistently empty of dairy products.”

And consumers are asking where they can purchase beef directly from local farms, highlighting an unprecedented high demand of meat at stores and a potential shift to a more traditional way of life.

“We always talk about buying local,” Mr. Matteson said. “But it’s easy and convenient for people to go to the supermarket.”

But supermarkets are having a hard time meeting the demand of meat, so consumers have reached out to Mr. Matteson about which local farms sell beef.

“We can help keep money in our local economy by doing this and have a good supply of meat,” he said. “So I’m trying to get that information out to people who are interested in buying directly from local markets.”

There are two primary ways of how farms sell beef directly to consumers. The first is farmers send their animals to a plant where the meat is processed, returned and then sold. The other way is typically a longer process in which consumers essentially choose an animal and how much of it they want. It’s then processed according to how they want.

“You can’t place that order today and get that meat tomorrow,” Mr. Matteson said. “That takes time.”

Mid-River Farm on Grindstone Island is selling beef directly to consumers. They have a walk-in freezer full of cuts from their grass-fed beef, as well as lamb and pork. They’ve been fielding multiple calls a day recently about their products.

“Finally,” said Eileen Slate, who owns the farm with her husband, Harry. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years. Too bad it takes a crisis and the stores running low for people to recognize their local farmer.”

Their meat products cost anywhere between $5.50 and $18 per pound, and the best way to reach them is to call to place an order and then set up an appointment to meet them in Clayton.

Lawrence Family Farm in Cape Vincent also sells beef directly to consumers.

“We’ve had two huge freezers full,” said Rick Lawrence, owner of the farm. “And it’s already going down fast.”

Mr. Lawrence said they have sold an unusual amount of meat in the last few days; however, most of the sales have been from existing clients who are stocking up. And he’s hesitant to say more beef is available for new customers as the inventory is running low, and he’s unsure if he can have more of his beef processed. He hopes to have an answer by Saturday; however, processing meat can take two or three weeks.

As for dairy, the highest priority for farmers is producing milk to drink. There are two dairy plants in Jefferson County, Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, a dairy plant known for its production of cheddar cheese, and HP Hood in LaFargeville, a cultured dairy plant that makes products such as yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese.

A portion of raw milk — not all of it, those cultured products are still being produced — is being diverted away from those plants in order to produce more fluid milk and meet the demand.

“There’s no food shortage at all,” Mr. Matteson said. “The system is actually working very well as far as making sure that we’re getting food back into these stores. When the demand hits, and people rush the store, there’s more being made and it’s on its way so it’s fresh and healthy and nutritious, and that’s what people need right now.”

And this might be good for those dairy farms because they are paid a higher price for fluid milk consumption than they are for cheese or cultured products.

“I want to reassure people that the food chain is in full operation,” Mr. Matteson said. “These dairy plants are making product as fast as they can. You’ll see, within 24 hours, those store shelves get stocked, but people are right there buying it again.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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