FILE - Consumer Prices, grocery store

(The Center Square) – As COVID-19 outbreaks shut down large beef and poultry processing plants at the beginning of the pandemic, beef and poultry farmers looked for alternatives to sell their livestock. When consumers found empty grocery shelves and higher prices for beef, pork and chicken, they often started shopping at local processors.

Missouri's department of agriculture witnessed the pandemic-influence changes. It stepped in and provided $16.7 million in grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act to assist approximately 150 meat and poultry producers in adapting to the new market created by the pandemic. The Missouri legislature approved $20 million in federal funds from the CARES act to further assist processors.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates Missouri’s cattle industry is $1.8 billion annually – about 3% of the nation’s market. Four companies – Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS SA and National Beef Packing – process about 85% of the nation's cattle as they are made into steaks, hamburger, roasts and other cuts of meat.

“When COVID affected the supply chain, people started looking for a local supply of meat,” said Kyle Whittaker, one of about 60 Missouri University Extension specialists assisting beef producers throughout the state. “Small processors were just inundated with requests. When hamburger approached $9 a pound during the pandemic, people started looking for a local source.”

The aim of the agriculture grant was improving the resiliency of the food supply chain. Processors with 200 employers or fewer could apply for funding for equipment, capital improvements and workforce assistance. Grants started at $20,000 for processors seeking a custom exemption, where individuals bring animals to the business for processing and the product is returned to them for consumption – not to be sold. Grants of $100,000 and $200,000 were awarded to processors seeking federal and state inspection certifications and those currently or planning to slaughter and process livestock or poultry under inspection.

“The grant’s main thrust was for the meat processor to become more efficient in the way they operate and to meet the demand of livestock producers wanting their animals slaughtered under inspection,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker believes consumers gained a better understanding of the relationship between livestock producers, processors and how variables affect prices and supply.

“The pandemic created disruptions in supply chains and a lot of people turned to local producers for their meat for the first time,” Whittaker said. “Our focus moving forward is continue to work on these relationships between producers and the consumer. It will strengthen the supply chain and keep those markets going strong.”

Williams Brothers Meat Market in Washington was one of the 150 businesses to receive a grant. Owner Steve Williams said the $200,000 they received was substantial in completing a $1.5 million expansion of their facility.

“This played a big part in helping us almost double our slaughter of local beef, hogs and lamb,” Williams said. “We’re still in construction today. Our capacity for retail space also increased.”

Williams built an improved area for holding livestock, purchased refrigeration units and a smokehouse. In conversations with other livestock processors, he hears expressions of gratitude for helping meat processors during a challenging time.

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” Williams said. “There was a big increase in demand there for about four months. I think people were scared. …. What the state and federal government did for us was a big plus to get us going. The demand was there and it was overwhelming. As I talked with processors throughout the state, this gave them the means to be able do things they’ve been thinking about for years.”

Whittaker believes the funding created a foundation for food processors to continue growing their businesses and competing against corporate food producers.

“Has it hurt the bottom line of Tyson foods?” Whittaker asked. “I highly doubt it, but I don’t know for sure. But the great thing about this, and why we’re dedicated to making this happen, is the supply chain between consumers and producers is a win-win situation. It’s also a win for the entire community, especially when you’re talking about smaller communities.”

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.