Go big or go home mentality leaves out small butchers and farmers

The pandemic has exposed and worsened deep-seated problems in a meat industry dominated by huge producers


Huanjia Zhang, ScienceLine

Jan 11, 2021


Scienceline is a student-run online magazine published by the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.


On a typical kill day, rancher Michael Kovach wakes up at 5 a.m. and loads 22 turkeys and about 200 broiler chickens onto his trailer. At the crack of dawn, every few weeks, he hauls the birds 120 miles from his farm in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania to the nearest poultry processing plant in Baltic, Ohio. The trip takes two and a half hours each way, but Kovach has no alternative — other than just giving up.


“My backup at this point is to not raise poultry,” says Kovach, who worries that his poultry processor might have to close down if there’s a coronavirus outbreak. As is, he’s already operating a slim profit margin as a small operator: he currently raises about 70 cows, 20 sheep, 200 turkeys and batches of 300 chickens — far less than industrial-scale competitors that raise thousands of cows or tens of thousands of birds at once. Although the red meat butcher is closer to him than the poultry processor, it is still half an hour away.


Across the country, small meat producers are in the same leaky boat as Kovach. After decades of consolidation, the meat industry in the U.S. has succumbed to a go big or go home model. Fifty meat-processing facilities slaughter and process roughly 98% of all beef in the country, and the “big four” meat companies now dominate more than 80% of the U.S. beef market. This amalgamation has left many mom-and-pop farms struggling to raise, slaughter and sell their products.


The pandemic has made the situation even worse. After COVID-19 struck, many big meat processors had to shut down due to outbreaks within their facilities, shifting the burden of meat processing to smaller slaughterhouses. This, in turn, has made it even harder for small farmers like Kovach to find places to process their animals. Because farming is a time-sensitive business, not being able to slaughter their animals in time not only means ranchers have to pay for extra feed, but also leads to some animals growing too big to be slaughtered. For this reason, in late spring, hog farmers nationwide were forced to euthanize millions of pigs, while scores of Americans were struggling to find enough meat on the shelf.


“Everybody eats, and it becomes glaringly obvious that the system that we rely on to do that is very fallible and on very shaky ground,” says Kovach, who serves as vice president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and spoke at an Oct. 30 webinar in 2020 discussing the persistent roadblocks small meat farmers and processors face.


ess in the [meat] supply chain,” agrees Sara Nicholas of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, the Pennsylvania-based sustainable agriculture association that organized the webinar.


The shortage of slaughterhouses is not only hurting farmers but also inundating those processing facilities that are still operating during the pandemic. “We are going as fast as we can, and it is draining everybody,” says Jay Young, a meat processor who also spoke at the webinar. Young owns and operates a small meat processing plant in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, which can typically handle no more than eight or nine cows per day.


For the first time in the eight years since Young established his plant, processing slots are now booked almost a year in advance. To accommodate as many farmers within the community as he can, Young has no choice but to ration how many animals to process per farmer. “We become an impediment to getting [farmers’] products to market,” he says. “It is heartbreaking.”


Small farmers and meat processors across the U.S. are both desperate for more meat processing plants to ease the situation. However, getting more slaughterhouses up and running is not a simple task. To start, establishing a meat processing plant is costly. Although costs can vary depending on the type of plant, the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network estimated that it costs about $2.4 million to establish a USDA-inspected facility that can process around 30 animals a week and employ about 10 full-time employees.


Even if butchers can raise enough money, they often have difficulties navigating the myriad laws and regulations...


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