CHRISTIANSBURG — The livestock market on Park Street was bustling Wednesday afternoon — pandemic or not — as farmers from all over Southwest Virginia showed up to buy or sell nearly 240 animals including cattle, goats, pigs and sheep.
Zach Milton, co-owner of the family-run facility, said the number of farmers and animals showing up has been down since the coronavirus situation began, but the abundance of pigs in this week’s auction brought out more farmers.
“They have been harder to come by lately, so I’m sure they are going to go quick today. ... Usually we see them sell for around 45 cents per pound but they’ll likely go for around 80 [cents] or more this week,” Milton said.
He said while cattle prices have gone down slightly, they have largely remained steady on the local level. Depending on the size and type of cattle, Milton said, most are going for between $500 and $700 each.
Milton said farmers can’t hold on to their cattle until prices return to normal or go up, either.
“It’s not like trading a stock where it will just be in your portfolio. You’ve still got to go out and feed it and put all your fixed costs and labor into it. … People don’t buy them and hold them for a month thinking the price will go back up. That’s not really how it works,” he said.
Some of the country’s biggest meat processing plants have had to temporarily shut down after becoming hot spots for the spread of the virus. U.S. beef and pork processing capacity is down 40% from last year as of Monday, according to an article from The Washington Post.
Wendy’s reported that nearly 20% of its restaurants are out of beef due to the shortage, and grocers such as Sam’s Club, Kroger and Costco are limiting the amount of meat customers can buy to limit panic buying similar to what’s happened with toilet paper in the U.S., according to The Washington Post report.
According to USA Today, critics of the industry cite the fact that about two-thirds of beef production and a large percentage of pork and chicken processing is concentrated in the hands of three companies – Tyson Foods, JBS SA, and Cargill Inc. — as a major reason for the shortage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently stated any shortages are likely due to a sudden increase in demand and supplies should normalize in time.
The USDA also noted that there’s an inventory of about 925 million pounds of beef, 662 million pounds of pork and 491 million pounds of chicken, frozen in commercial and public storage.
Nevertheless, many meatpacking plants and processed food plants have closed due to a shortage of workers. Approximately 5,300 U.S. plant workers have been confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus, according to USA Today.
President Donald Trump has been lauded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for an executive order signed April 28, aiming to keep processing plants open under the Defense Production Act.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union have criticized the decision, stating that it puts workers at danger of catching the virus.
Jennifer McClellan — who owns Nolley Wood Farm in Riner with her husband Phillip — said the closures have increased the need for locally sourced meat, which is a good and bad problem to have.
Her 54-acre farm produces beef, chicken, eggs, lamb, pork and occasionally turkey, which she sells to local stores, restaurants and farmers markets. Although demand is higher, she and her husband are facing similar problems as the nation’s largest distributors.
McClellan said she usually uses one slaughterhouse a few hours away in Bristol but is now having to get her animals processed in West Virginia and North Carolina as well.
“Where I could usually call and get some animals processed next week, its now taking until August,” she said.
She attributes the strain on smaller processors to a mixture of panic from the public and increased need for farmers to have their livestock processed for personal consumption, as well as friends and family who would otherwise get what they need from traditional grocery stores.
“We are in good shape for now because we planned ahead and started making calls early on,” McClellan said. “But depending on how long all of this continues, that may not be the case if some of the smaller processors have to close as well.”