The phone hasn’t stopped ringing at Alberta Prairie Meats since the news broke that Cargill’s beef-processing plant was being temporarily shut down.
“The minute that the Cargill situation was announced, our phones started ringing off the hook,” said Jim Johnson, who owns and operates the abattoir in Duchess.
“We finally got so inundated with orders that we had to quit taking them. But people are still calling.”
Consumers have been calling looking for beef since the pandemic was declared at the end of March, but now the calls are from beef producers looking for hook space that Johnson doesn’t have.
“Nobody has hook space to accommodate slaughter,” said Johnson, who normally processes between 50 and 60 animals a week with a staff of 18 people. “Everybody is just in an absolute panic to get their animals in. They’re fighting for hook space, and meanwhile, we’re fighting to keep meat on the shelf.”
Once the abattoir was booked to the end of August, Johnson stopped taking orders.
“When we filled up at the end of August, my main fear was that if we had a case of COVID here or we were affected by it and lost people, we’d be in trouble,” he said. “Luckily I quit then. Otherwise I’d probably be booking to October.”
Alberta Prairie Meats hasn’t been immune to the challenges facing other meat-processing plants, despite its smaller size. Located just 20 kilometres north of Brooks (home to JBS’s beef plant), Johnson is also experiencing staffing shortages as a result of the pandemic.
“Half my staff is married to or living with people who work at that plant (JBS). So we’ve got people on quarantine too,” he said, adding that morale is low. “Everybody is very tense right now. Everybody is walking on pins and needles not knowing what to expect and hoping everybody else is healthy.”
Every worker is required to sanitize when they step through the door, and then their temperature is taken and they answer a questionnaire before donning protective gear. (The retail counter has also been closed in favour of phone orders.) But there’s only so much you can do, said Johnson.
“None of these plants, big or small, were ever designed for social distancing,” he said. “It’s just designed for two people to do one job, and in some cases, you’re almost literally holding hands to try and get the job done, you’re working that close together.”
Johnson is trying to buy himself some time by working through the cattle that he has hanging right now without killing any more.
“And then I’m almost going to have to restructure by taking in less animals, assuming I’m going to have a few people gone,” he said.
“Because there are so many risk factors out there, there’s absolutely no way that it’s possible (to ramp up). If anything, I’d be looking at scaling down a little bit just because of the risk of having too many animals hanging at one time and no staff to cut them.”
But in the meantime, farmers are left looking for a home for their animals, and it’s unlikely that the small-scale rural abattoir system will be able to accommodate them.
“It’s pretty bleak out there,” said Johnson.
While most producers are “waiting patiently” to get loads through, or even going on a maintenance ration for their cattle, others are looking to market their beef directly to consumers.
“I’ve got all sorts of farmers right now calling me to direct market their cattle just so they don’t take the beating that they will at the auction mart,” said Johnson.
“If they’ve got the time and the manpower to do it — and if they can find the hook space — I think there are some great opportunities there. Some of the guys that I have who are already doing that are screaming at me to get more animals through.”
As grocery store shortages drive consumers to look for alternative sources for their beef, producers who already direct market — or who could make the shift — may be able to expand their market and command a premium for their beef.
“There’s a glimmer of hope for producers who have been doing — or considering — direct-to-consumer marketing,” said Duane Ellard, executive director of channel marketing for Canada Beef.
“For those individuals who have already made the investment, the opportunity is there for them now to reap that benefit. And for those beef farmers who have considered direct marketing, this is the opportune time.”
Some farmers began to move to direct marketing during the BSE crisis, but over the last five years, “it’s really ramped up,” and that could continue as the pandemic plays out, said Ellard.
“I do believe that there is an opportunity for these rural abattoirs to market direct to consumer,” he said. “I think there’s a good atmosphere today to be able to meet the needs of consumers during these times.”
Even so, direct marketing isn’t for the faint of heart, Johnson cautioned.
“It’s not an easy way of doing it,” he said. “They’re busy already on the farm. For them to go ahead and try to do the next step — marketing, pricing, delivery, chasing people down — it’s an eye-opener once they get into it. Most of the ones I’ve seen get into it have not gone back.”
Johnson suspects that, after the initial panic subsides, most producers will be able to wait out the summer and see if things have turned around in the fall.
“I wouldn’t want to be trying to look for a cash crop today at the auction marts, but by the time the fall run comes and it’s time to get that cash crop to market, I think things will have recovered some,” he said.
“Beef prices are going to rise, and there are going to be huge margins in there for the ones who can get through this.”