As summer heats up, Jacqueline Smith, founder of Central Grazing Company, continues to move her sheep daily with the help of two farmhands and several working farm dogs. The daily task list on the farm is fairly predictable: Check the sheep, move their fencing, set up water, and get ready to repeat the process again within 24 grazing hours.
What has become far less predictable — and further exacerbated by the COVID pandemic — is the way the food system is operating. This instability is felt most intimately by small- and mid-sized farms and ranches, including Central Grazing Company. Several intersecting issues that drive the volatility — particularly pastured lamb producers — include limited land access (especially for beginning farmers and ranchers), reduced flock numbers and size around the globe, and a lack of lamb production in the U.S. The greatest challenge is the lack of processing facilities to accommodate smaller operations. Processing facilities are more than just a building. They include the physical space, skilled butchers, and inspectors to ensure the quality and cleanliness of the facility and the product before it reaches the market.
“Central Grazing Company alone has lost access to 62% of the required processing capacity since 2020, and the shortage is ongoing,” says Smith. This processing shortage, while accelerated and exposed by the COVID pandemic, did not start in 2020.
We talked with Jacqueline to learn more about what is happening in the Midwest, our food system, and what Central Grazing Company is working on locally to address these challenges.
Can you contextualize what has been happening in our regional food systems to lead us to this current processing shortage and bottleneck? How is it impacting food producers?
Four companies — Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS SA, and National Beef Packing Company — own 80% of our protein food supply here in the U.S.; two are foreign-owned. Over time, larger, consolidated meat companies have taken over contracts at smaller processing facilities, pushing out smaller, more time-consuming contracts. Working with larger companies and contracts is an excellent opportunity for smaller processing facilities to earn more income, as these contracts provide the facilities with a set processing schedule, which is easier to manage and comes with a reliable income stream. However, it disrupts everyone who doesn't meet that same capacity.
What we're experiencing primarily affects small, rural families in food deserts who are now losing access to self-production and food sovereignty. Policy changes have allowed the consolidation of what we believe are agricultural community assets — the assets and people needed to produce, process, and distribute food. There isn't a real opportunity for people to come into farming or agriculture because it is genuinely a "dying" industry. Agriculture is globalized, consolidated, and vulnerable, and we believe it must be decentralized to regain a resilient food system.
Investing in more regional supply chains can create a more resilient food system by creating a pipeline for farmers to come into and sell outside of the commodity market, work for more than poverty wages, and have more pricing power. We require farmers to produce food, but our current system doesn't value their work above poverty wages.
How was processing changed during COVID? What struggles does it continue to face?
The U.S. meat industry was one of the most impacted by Covid outbreaks. The commercial facilities relied on unfair, close working conditions, which led to Covid outbreaks and worker shortages. The lack of national meat-processing infrastructure as a result of Covid caused small, locally owned plants to shoulder additional workloads to meet national demand. As their workload increased, local processors prioritized the high demand and easy-to-process commercial accounts over the more time-consuming local ones. This exacerbated the trend toward larger contracts that had already begun in preceding years.
We were booked solid for the entire year of 2020, and we lost almost half of our available dates and processors. Central Grazing Company, for example, has lost 62% of our processing capacity, and we can't get it back. Small processing facilities near us in Douglas County have 12 to 18 month waitlists for local producers, and some have stopped processing lamb, goat, and venison.
Often, smaller processing facilities are overwhelmed and don’t have enough resources to take the demand. Farmers are making harsh no-win decisions, such as feeding animals longer, which comes at a higher cost to the farmer and makes the animals put on more fat, resulting in the loss of quality and value.
What is the processing reality for small-scale pastured lamb producers, based on your experience, in this area of the Midwest and, really, globally?
Due to the increased demand and global supply chain shortages, USDA reports indicate that the price of lamb has risen by 228%, and there is no indication that it will decrease anytime soon. The USDA also is estimating that 400 million pounds of lamb will be consumed by Americans, but only 153 million pounds of that will come from the U.S.
Most of the world's lamb is produced in New Zealand and Australia. Due to lasting droughts and fires in those countries, and the pandemic closing borders, they have not been able to supply the global demand. Furthermore, Turkey, a large lamb supplier, is tightening its grip on exported food stocks in preparation for a food crisis due to the war in Ukraine. Most lamb in the U.S. is processed to supply the global market, leaving little inventory for the U.S. lamb market.
What changes are you working on to address these challenges?
We recognize the need to have a stronger, more secure food system that gives farmers more power to negotiate, earn more than poverty wages, create economic development opportunities, and pave the way for land access. If we don’t secure our food system, we won’t have resiliency when external forces disrupt it, as we have seen in the past few years.
To address these issues, we are working in community with local stakeholders to secure our regional food system. These steps include creating access at multiple levels — pathways for land access for underrepresented farmers and access to agricultural infrastructure, including processing availability.
Part of this process for Central Grazing Company includes developing processing facilities as a community asset. We are building a facility that will help us get more affordable lamb for our customers and will also be a community resource for local food sovereignty. We are actively pursuing development plans to create a meat processing facility that will utilize a Perpetual Purpose Trust to ensure this agricultural infrastructure will remain a community asset indefinitely. We believe this will be an important step to building a more resilient local food system that benefits our business and our community.