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Meat processing backup affects farmers, quality

Meat processing backup affects farmers, quality
Meat processing backup affects farmers, quality
Blake Steckler, co-owner of First Capitol Meat Processing in Corydon, packages meat processed at the plant for local farmers to then sell or keep. Photo by Joey Bowling
Joey Bowling, Intern, [email protected]

December. That’s how far meat processing is expected to be backed up, and it could be backed up even longer. That projection is most likely under-counted as well, as many meat processors aren’t allowing bookings for 2021 until later this year.

For a farmer like Lynn Miller of Corydon, that meant keeping animals alive longer, expecting a drop in the amount of meat he can sell and possibly taking a financial hit if the situation doesn’t change soon.

Production can’t really slow down, he said. Some farmers can use devices to slow down an animal’s weight increase, but a production like his doesn’t have anything like that. He said he is only able to process 1/3 of the animals he typically gets in, which can lead to him running out of meat to sell.

Filets, ribeyes and other choice meats are gone first.

Miller said the COVID-19 pandemic has had negative and positive effects on his finances. On one hand, he’s not able to sell as much meat, but on the other he’s selling everything he has.

Miller is also refusing to raise prices to make up for any financial loss.

“If I was on the other end of that, just trying to feed my family, I wouldn’t want someone to take  advantage of me,” Miller said.

His animals getting bigger is actually better for consumers, Miller said.

However, a USDA spokesperson said as animals age, it degrades the quality of the meat and changes the texture, color and tenderness.

Meat processors can’t help the backup. There is only so much meat they can get through in a day, and, with the pandemic speeding up operations and an inexplicably meat-heavy year, there isn’t enough time to meet everyone’s expectations, said Garth Steckler, co-owner of First Capitol Meat Processing in Corydon.

“They were doing as much as they could in a week,” he said. “The animals still exist on the production end. People are still gonna eat the same amount on the consumer end. The middle is just a lot different than it was.”

Within a five-hour radius of Corydon, everyone is booked up, Steckler said.

Before the pandemic hit in March, processors would be booked four to six weeks ahead, sometimes even eight weeks. Now, waiting lists can span months.

Steckler also attributes this to the dwindling number of processors, as some are bought out or people retire and close up shop. He and his brother just took over First Capitol Meat Processing from the previous owners who are retiring.

COVID-19 temporarily shutting down meat processing plants such as Tyson Foods also affected the processing time line. With commercial plants out of operation, many farmers and customers began going to the local plants, increasing demand and booking up even farther into the future.

“The amount of animals that go through that kind of place is astronomical,” Steckler said. “Trying to get all these little plants to get that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Steckler and his brother are hoping to expand business exponentially. Until then, First Capitol Meat Processing will continue processing about 10 hogs and 20 cows a week.

“There’s just not enough capacity there,” Steckler said.