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Small Meatpacking Plants Thrive As COVID-19 Forced Bigger Ones To Close


How exactly is COVID-19 affecting the meat supply chain? We know President Trump ordered packing plants to stay open, which happened after many large facilities became hotbeds of infection and didn't have enough healthy workers. But what does all this mean for farmers and ranchers? And how are smaller meatpacking operations faring? Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Minnesota hog farmer Mike Patterson is in a tight spot.

MIKE PATTERSON: We just physically can't house all those animals. There's just no place for them to go.

MORRIS: His barns are chock-full. And modern production agriculture is precise. Imagine a conveyor belt. And on Patterson's farm, about 330 full-grown pigs need to get off the end of that belt each week to make room for 330 more coming in the pipeline. Problem is the COVID-19 outbreak closed the packing house that normally buys Patterson's animals more than two weeks ago.

PATTERSON: Essentially, we're just running out of space and running out of time. And at the end, you know, disposing of the animals through depopulation is the final and only choice we really have.

MORRIS: Disposing of healthy animals is now a daily fact of life on hog farms in the upper Midwest.

DAVID ANDERSON: This is really a crisis with lots of hard decisions they have to make.

MORRIS: David Anderson, a livestock economist at Texas A&M, says the pork industry is hardest hit, with nearly 40% of the nation's pork processing capability now offline on any given day. That's driving up consumer prices for some cuts of meat and setting up the possibility of shortages to come. But while many big packing houses are hobbled by COVID-19 outbreaks, some small ones are thriving.

CHRIS KURZWEIL: This is our blast chiller. So when the meat comes out of the smokehouse, it comes into here.

MORRIS: Here at Kurzweils' Meats in Garden City, Miss., Chris Kurzweil wears a white coat and hairnet, but no mask. Coronavirus infections are low in this mostly rural county. And business here is brisk.

KURZWEIL: It's been very good. We are just busy as can be right now.

MORRIS: For one thing, a small workforce is healthy. And Kurzweil says his company was quick to pivot away from restaurant supply to grocery store sales.

KURZWEIL: We were able to change and turn and make smaller packages - one-pound packages - to go to the end consumer. And we were able to do that quick, where a lot of these big companies, they can't do that.

MORRIS: Around the country, small butchers are buying some of the animals that farmers would otherwise be selling to big meat companies. But it is far from a complete solution.

PATTERSON: I'd maybe more describe it as a pressure relief valve.

MORRIS: That's Mike Patterson again. And he is under pressure. He's managed to sell - or give - about 170 of his hogs to local processors and a food pantry. While that beats euthanizing them, it won't pay his bills. And Patterson figures he'll lose close to half a million dollars if he can't sell his excess hogs, animals that the pandemic disruption has left at least temporarily worthless.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "PORCH SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.