By Amber Boeshans, North Dakota Livestock Alliance Executive Director

As the entire world continues to adjust to the COVID-19 challenges and pending post-pandemic reality, North Dakota’s agricultural producers and processors are feeling the pressure.

It seemed like every time things started to improve, a new challenge would surface including extended restaurant and school closures, meat and milk processing plant closures and now increasing drought severity in the west and floods in the east. Through all these sudden changes, local livestock producers and processors are making adjustments in the best interest of North Dakota’s consumers to continue to produce quality, safe, nutrient rich foods, while keeping employee health and safety a priority.

 

The first major hill on this roller-coaster ride was the closing of restaurants and schools, paired with ‘panic purchasing’ at grocery stores. This resulted in food processing plants’ immediate need to shift from packaging for foodservice to packaging for retail. Food service requires large-scale packaging of food items for preparation at restaurants, university dining halls, hotels, etc. An example from the dairy industry is a processor packaging 10-pound bags of cheese for large scale foodservice, vs the substantially smaller 1-pound retail sizes that you will find in the grocery store. Not all food processors could make this shift quickly, due to challenges with applicable equipment and packaging, and many needed to completely reroute their distribution lines. Dairy was especially impacted by the closure of the schools where around 11% of fluid milk is consumed across the U.S. Beef, pork and lamb values were hit because their high-end meat cuts were no longer being purchased at restaurants and steakhouses. Food service provides the highest demand for bacon. Tamra Heins, Executive Director of the ND Pork Council said, ‘We went from a belly [bacon] supply surplus, to a belly supply shortage in less than six weeks. That is a huge swing in a short time.’ The meat processing plants had the bellies on hand but weren’t able to get them processed and distributed to grocery stores because they were taking on the second hill of the COVID-19 roller-coaster…employee health and wellness.

In all facets of animal agriculture, employees are our greatest asset and, often times, our greatest shortage. As COVID-19 positive tests occurred in America’s meat processing plants, some had to close, some for several weeks, to allow for cleaning and installation of new safety measures. These closures resulted in a hard stop of animal agriculture moving from farms to harvest. Health officials and plant leadership actively sought solutions to ensure the safety of employees, while trying to reopen plants to keep America’s farms running and grocery shelves stocked.  With careful attention to employee health, social distancing, and sanitation practices, along with several other CDC guidelines, America’s meat processors are reopening. Consumers can rest assured that the food system, from the farmers to the processors, is working tirelessly to bring high quality, safe, nutritious food to store shelves.

Since producers couldn’t get their animals to harvest, they had to figure out ways to keep them on the farm without the animals getting too heavy and, most importantly, to maintain animal health and care standards. For example, some North Dakota pig farmers slowed the growth of their pigs by adjusting their feed rations by reducing energy and increasing fiber. This keeps the pigs healthy and allows them to stay on the farm longer. Even with adjustments like these, the economic and emotional damage across farm country is extensive. Thankfully, North Dakota’s consumers are showing the love by stepping-up in support of the state’s farmers and ranchers.

 

As disruptions in the food supply chains peaked, American consumers were seeing occasional retail shortages and increased price tags. This was a shock to many consumers who may have never experienced food availability challenges or shortages. So…who did North Dakota’s consumers turn to when things got tough? To their trusted North Dakota livestock producers and processors! This rapid increase in local meat and dairy demand shows that farmers continue to have the trust and support of their communities. The interest in local meat has even resulted in a widespread freezer shortage and year-long waiting lists at ND butcher shops. Sometimes it is hard to find a silver-lining in dark times like these, but they are so important to keep in mind. In addition to increased demand for local foods, multiple ND farm and ranch organizations including Midwest Dairy, ND Stockmen’s Association, ND Livestock Alliance, ND Farmers Union and many more have donated food, refrigerators and freezers to assist local food pantries in meeting the increased needs for food assistance.

Another important item to keep in mind throughout this wild roller-coaster ride, is along with the daily farm responsibilities, farmers and ranchers are caring for the health of their families and employees. Sometimes those two categories are one and the same, family members are also the farm employees. And COVID-19 is not the only risk to farm and ranch family health, rising stress levels continue to burden all agriculture producers. If you are feeling stressed, or if you see a friend or neighbor suffering, please don’t hesitate to contact your local healthcare provider and visit NDSU Extension’s Farm and Ranch Stress website.

To contact the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, please visit ndlivestock.org or call Amber Boeshans, Executive Director, at 701-712-1488.