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April 30, 2020 4 min read

Brooks' Opinion, part two: Why is there no meat on the grocery store shelves?

I wrote about it last week - the first story we heard of a broiler house being "euthanized" was almost a month ago. The big plants only started shutting down a few weeks ago, though, so what gives? Why would contract farmers be killing livestock and burying them when there's no meat on the shelves?

The real story is this all goes back beyond the pandemic. It starts decades ago, but really relates to the supply chain. In March, the United States' cold storage was already higher than usual, because exports to China were put on hold. The numbers below for beef are similar for pork and chicken, and show the increase in stored frozen meat in the U.S. increasing from August 2019, hitting a high point seasonally in April this year.

There's tons of meat in inventory, and yet none of it is getting to the grocery store shelves, because this is meat that was intended for export. Meat that was intended to feed China, especially after their recent outbreak of swine flu decimated their hog population. It continues to overwhelm the cold storage infrastructure in this country, which is a huge reason the meat plants are shutting down.

Yes, that's correct - it's not just that they're suddenly making the right decision by their employees - they have nowhere to put slaughtered meat. And the shelves still sit empty. I wish this were an anomaly, but the issue in this country has never been production - it's always been the logistics of getting food to the folks who need it when they need it.

Why? Because instead of encouraging regions to feed themselves, we've sold our right to produce food to the lowest bidder.

The plot thickens...

More graphs, NOOO! Check out 1999. Pig farmers were not partying with Prince. Before the mid 90s, farmers often got about half of the retail dollar, though often less, of the pork they produced. The 90s saw the beginning of the end of pigs outside - crates for every age of gestation and farrowing, indoor everything. Farmers signed contracts and companies consolidated production.

In fact, production has been consolidated so much that one company shutting down a few meat plants last week ended up with 15-20% OF OUR NATIONAL PRODUCTION dropping off. Nuts.

Pork is produced cheaper and cheaper than ever - and in getting better and better at their jobs, the producers have been rewarded with their pay being cut in half. In fact, look at pork prices from the 80s and now...you will wonder how it's possible to make a living.

Let me be clear, North Mountain Pastures is not efficient at producing pork! I have no interest in producing pork "efficiently" - I want the most nutrient-dense, humanely raised, health-giving pork my family can put on the table. Into the early 90s, much of the pork in the U.S. was like this. Now, our national pork herd is a sad, diseased, stressed bunch of swine bred for fast growth under conditions that could best be described as horrific. So NMP is doing things "inefficiently" (slow growing pigs outdoors on pasture, nonGMO, no antibiotics and growth hormones, natural farrowing, heirloom breeds, etc.) by industry standards. However, putting the extra work into processing and logistics allows us to remove the middleman and get the retail dollar. It also allows us to charge what it actually costs to raise a pig in a good, healthy environment.

OK, one last graph. This is commodity pricing of lean hogs (market pigs) in the U.S. Prices dropped to 30 cents a pound for the first time since 2003. Take a look though, this is NOT because of the pandemic alone! This is a trend that has been coming, and it is frailty of this commodification of food that is driving dairy farmers - and now, soon, livestock farmers - out of business.

What to do? Well, you're DOING IT. You've demanded better and we will continue to produce pork, turkey, lamb and beef that is health-giving and good for the soil. You can support organizations like LEAF and PASA who are trying their hardest to educate the next generation on the issues inherent in a commodity-based food system. Read PASA's annual report and see the results PASA farmers have logged in soil health. 

Know that this time is not some unique time in history...it's our time to make a change. It's a lowlight of the system we've allowed to grow around us unchecked, backed by corrupt politicians who choose profit over people and the planet on a daily basis. Know a few things first, though....

More people will have to be involved in food production in order to make it work any differently. It's hard work, but it's not so bad! I bet many of you would even love it. What do we do to make this a reality? I don't know, but I'd love to hear your ideas! This is the kind of stuff I want to make the topic of NMP gatherings and conversation in the future. We need real solutions, real quick to get farmers on the ground out of commodity production and back into producing food we can all feel good about. Let's talk!

Your farmers,

~Brooks and Anna


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Brooks' Opinion: Why is there no meat on the grocery store shelves?