The family owners of a local cattle farm had long considered moving beef sales to a direct-to-consumer model, and the COVID-19 pandemic was just the push they needed. When many meat processing plants temporarily shut down in March 2020, several of Williams Angus Beef’s cows were at an external feedlot ready to be sold and butchered, but suddenly there was nowhere for them to go.
The family was looking at losing thousands of dollars and was left with the decision to euthanize its animals or find an alternative. Farm owner Jeff Williams looked at his daughters Maggie Davidson and JoBeth Evans and asked “What do we do to keep this from happening?”
At the same time, Davidson and Evans were receiving an overwhelming number of calls from neighbors worried about the shortage of meat in grocery stores and rising meat prices. The families decided to begin selling beef directly to customers both to provide for the community during a time of scarcity and to avoid “killing the animals for nothing,” Evans said.
The family has discovered several benefits of selling their meat directly to consumers. The animals stay on their farm their entire lives until they are ready to be processed, meaning the farmers are in full control of the treatment of their animals, Evans said. They are also more in touch with what consumers want and more in control of what happens to their cattle.
“If something like this happens again, another pandemic or the economy drops, we want to be in charge of what happens to our animals and not just take them to the sale barn on Wednesday and hope they do well,” Davidson said.
Four major companies that control about 80% of the beef supply for the national market — Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef and JBS. Big beef companies’ control over the industry can make it more difficult for the “little guys,” Davidson said.
When meat prices rise in grocery stores, larger companies, not local farmers, profit from the increase. The consumer price index for beef rose by 17.6% from September 2020 to September 2021, while the index for fish, poultry, meat and eggs as a whole rose 10.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Local meat processors have also felt the effects of the pandemic. Rick Rice, owner of Rice Custom Meat Processing in Rudy, Arkansas, said meat processors in the area were “bombarded” with pork and beef processing requests at the beginning of the pandemic, and the rush has not slowed down. His business is scheduled a year out, and his employees average between 55 and 60 hours a week, he said.
Meat is not the only product whose price is affected by the financial strain of the pandemic. The cost of paper and vacuum-packing plastic products began to skyrocket in 2020 and has not come back down, Rice said. Paper and plastic costs have tripled while shipping has doubled, and Rice needed to find a way to offset the increase in packaging costs.
“That makes it to where we have to raise our prices, to be able to package it, sell it to consumers,” Rice said.
Evans and Davidson have experienced difficulties securing processing appointments throughout the pandemic because of overwhelmed processing plants, they said. Partnering with Key’s Family Butcher Shop was a major breakthrough for the farm because it meant the family could sell beef by the pound to restaurants or schools in addition to selling directly to consumers.
Davidson thinks the shutdown of major processing companies in the early months of the pandemic and health mandates that limited staffing of reopened facilities created a bottleneck, she said. This was a major factor in rising meat prices and hindered farmers’ abilities to sell calves, because no one was buying them.
“It takes 18 months to get a steer ready to process, so from the time your cow’s bred, you’re two years from making any changes in your herd,” Davidson said. “You can’t change that overnight, so when they stopped processing, farmers still had the exact same number of cows they had the day before.”
Selling directly to consumers has pushed the members of the Williams Angus Beef team to delve into the business aspects of farming, like running a website, marketing and creating delivery schedules, Evans said. They are still in the early stages of the process, but the farmers hope the transition will increase profits for their business in the long run.
"We are trying to make this something that is sustainable for generations to come," Evans said. "We want to make it to where we can make it profitable enough that it is worth our kids' time in the future."