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Grocery prices and shortages drive consumers to locally grown meat and produce

UPDATED: Sun., May 10, 2020

Eileen Napier, co-owner and co-operator of Ramstead Ranch near Ione, Wash., fills a customers order of short ribs at the Perry Street Thursday Market on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eileen Napier, co-owner and co-operator of Ramstead Ranch near Ione, Wash., fills a customers order of short ribs at the Perry Street Thursday Market on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The business operations of local ranches and one distributor of community-supported agriculture products have evolved during the stay-home order as some grocery chains experience meat shortages.

Customers are filling their freezers at a greater capacity, and produce that normally was funneled to restaurants and institutions like universities is instead being sold directly to consumers.

At Rocky Ridge Ranch north of Reardan, Washington, co-owner Gary Angell said he might end up running out of meat if the current level of demand continues.

“One of the reasons is they don’t want to go to grocery stores (is) because they’re afraid of catching the virus,” Angell said. “The stores are pretty crowded, at least the ones I’ve run into. The other is that the stores don’t have much meat on hand.”

But Eric Renner, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439, said he’s hearing from members there is a tighter supply and there needs to be more discipline among consumers, because of panic purchasing.

Renner compared the situation to the run on toilet paper during the initial stages of the stay-home order.

“People went out and bought bulk and it created issues,” Renner said. “Panic buying or buying in large quantities would lead to shortages more than the supply chain itself.”

Renner said he hasn’t heard from union members on increasing prices, but with the increase in demand, it wouldn’t surprise him.

As of early last week, U.S. beef and pork processing capacity was down 40% from last year, according to Jayson Lusk, head of the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Multiple U.S. meatpacking facilities have closed in recent weeks because of coronavirus outbreaks among workers.

Patti Brumbach, Washington State Beef Commission executive director, said there has been a beef shortage in the region as well as an increase in prices spurred by demand, but she believes it will be temporary and links it to issues in the supply chain, such as the temporary closure of the Wallula Tyson Foods meat-processing plant. The plant was recently reopened after closing with more than 100 employees testing positive for COVID-19 and one death related the virus. Customers should also expect that grocers might not have every cut of meat available, Brumbach said.

The shortage and price increase “should not be terribly long term, hopefully, as we are able to open our plants and become more operational,” Brumbach said. “The challenge is that we have a kind of a choke point at the plant. Our cattle ranchers work every day, they never stopped. … It has just really been a challenge when we address employee safety issues at the packing plant level.”

Rosauers CEO Jeff Philipps said though the company does not buy Tyson products from the Wallula plant, it does have suppliers whose meat is processed at that plant. Rosauers is experiencing a shortage in quantities and availability of cuts, as well as increased prices. Philipps has been fielding concerns from customers who think the grocery chain is price gouging, but he said they are only raising prices in line with the increased prices from their suppliers.

“All essential service providers are doing their absolute best to continue to provide the goods and services that customers are looking for,” Philipps said. “We have no desire, no intention to do anything but do our best to provide the products and services that people are used to getting at the prices that are competitive in the marketplace.”

Albertsons and Yoke’s Fresh Market did not respond when asked for comment. An email from Costco said the company is not responding to individual media requests. Its customer policy on its website said, “Fresh meat purchases are temporarily limited to a total of three items per member among the beef, pork and poultry products.”

From field

to consumers

Angell has heard that with the increase in prices at grocery stores, his grass-fed beef is now comparable to grocery prices.

“I haven’t raised my price,” he said. “Normally, in grass-fed beef, we’re more expensive, and there’s a lot of reason for that in the cattle business.”

Angell’s mainstay is a community-supported agriculture model, or CSA, and membership has increased 30% in the past three weeks. In just three days, he had 27 orders. In all the madness, Angell had a valid “the dog ate my homework” fumble: Two orders were missed because his puppy came by, knocked all of the paperwork on the floor, and the orders were shuffled into the completed folder.

“I think, at the same time, I work really hard,” Angell said. “I think I did a pretty good job taking 27 orders from market besides our regular CSA ones.”

Angell’s wife and Rocky Ridge Ranch co-owner YiDeuke, nicknamed So, manages the greenhouse produce. She has enough to accommodate the CSA increase, but Angell said she won’t have much for retail.

Caitlin Lake ordered a half cow from Lone Crow Ranch in Deer Park when the stay-home order went into effect because she wanted to minimize her trips to the grocery. She said she was also considering the conditions for processing plant workers when she made that decision.

“I don’t want anybody to die to feed my family,” Lake said. “So if I can avoid buying from Tyson, if I can avoid buying from Amazon, if I can avoid these things right now, I want to do that.”

Two weeks ago, she ordered another half cow (this time, to split with a neighbor), and the ranch was so busy that her order will not be filled until late June.

Cody Hoseth, Lone Crow Ranch owner, said he’s seeing a huge increase in orders, and the ranch is booked through September.

Ramstead Ranch near Ione in Pend Oreille County began offering delivery services because of the stay-home order. Eileen Napier, co-owner and co-operator, said Ramstead Ranch had been planning to implement the service but sped up the process.

“Now is the time,” Napier said. “We need to prioritize this, people need it. So in order to serve our customers better, we just moved it up in our schedule for the year.”

Napier said her regular customers have been buying larger quantities of meat, but she is seeing the most new customers with the delivery option. Ramstead Ranch is also participating in the Perry Street and Liberty Lake farmers’ markets. For those missing certain cuts in the grocery aisle, Napier said Ramstead Ranch could be a good option, and an opportunity to try something new.

“It’s a lot like what you would expect to find at a grocery store, only we offer cuts from the whole animal,” Napier said. “We do organ meats and everything else to the tongue, and a lot of cuts that are niche cuts, like country-style ribs and things that you don’t necessarily find in the mainstream meat aisle.”

Jim Wentland, Spokane County Cattlemen president, said local ranchers have been having difficulty finding processors for their meat, with the increase in demand from more people turning to local producers.

“Normally, we’re about a month out to get something processed, and I called a processor in the Post Falls, Idaho, area the other day and she’s like, ‘I can put you on the list for January,’ ” Wentland said.

LINC pivots

Local Inland Northwest Cooperative Foods, known as LINC, works with many area ranchers, but is facing difficulties related to its business model, and has shifted dramatically during the stay-home order, creating a direct-to-consumer online marketplace.

The lion’s share of LINC’s business customarily is wholesale food distribution. Of that, hospitality and restaurant business comprised about 35% of its business, and large institutions such as universities and school districts made up 25%.

Since launching the online marketplace six weeks ago, LINC has had 1,500 shopper sign-ups and sales growth of 25% week upon week.

“We have learned a lot about the potential space that we can create to connect our growers and consumers beyond what LINC box has historically accomplished,” said Brian Estes, LINC partnership director. “I think there are lessons that we’re learning about how we can broaden this aspect of our operation.”

The marketplace is selling more than 200 items from 29 local farms and 13 local food producers. LINC has partnerships with more than 60 farms. The marketplace offers two pickup sites per week as well as home delivery through Treehouse Delivery, a local food delivery service.

LINC also offers “LINC boxes,” a subscription service in which membership buys the consumer seasonal produce from source-identified local farmers. Members can choose add-ons as well, such as meat, eggs, milk, cheese, coffee and even products from local shops such as Bean & Pie. The first LINC box of the season will be available June 1.

Estes said consumers are interested in locally sourced food that is identifiable back to the farm.

Estes said a core part of LINC’s business model is “being able to say, here’s your box of products, and I can tell you a funny story about each one of the farmers who’ve got a product in your box, and I can tell you just how far down the road they are.”

Estes stressed the impact on workers when the food supply chain is on a smaller scale, saying the infections at the Tyson plant is case in point.

“I think the other big thing we should be having a conversation about is, ‘What are the working conditions for the people who are making my food possible?’ ” Estes said.

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