Meat processing delays could be why meat prices are so high

Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 6:22 PM EDT
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UPSTATE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - If you’ve noticed meat prices are high lately, this could be why.

Meat processing plants are backlogged for months, sometimes over a year. This is affecting our state and the entire country. And it’s making it difficult for local farmers to keep up with the demand.

Upstate farmers explained to us that during the pandemic, meat processing facilities had to make employees social distance. There wasn’t enough room, so some staff were furloughed. When the pandemic let up, many of those employees didn’t return. Now, the plants are dealing with staff shortages, which are, in turn, affecting farmers.

Joel Sudduth with Skyland Farms, in Greer, says he has to schedule a slot to process his meat six months out.

“Before the pandemic, I could pick up the phone 30 days out and say I need to bring the beef or a pig. There were no issues,” Sudduth said, “When the pandemic hit, that all went away.”

Steve Ellis with Bethel Trails Farm, in Gray Court, says plants are also limiting the amount of livestock they can bring to be processed.

“I’ve got the animals. And we’ve got the network to sell it, but the processing is the bottleneck,” Ellis said.

Sudduth says farmers are fighting for spots far ahead.

“What happens is, every ninety days, as soon as they open that morning, you’re on the phone and trying to get those spots filled,” said Sudduth.

Customers can purchase meat straight from the store at Skyland Farms. And they’re seeing 65 percent more customers this year. However, they’re seeing empty shelves along with it.

Plus, Ellis says the cost to put meat on your table continues to rise.

“It used to cost fifty dollars to take six pigs,” said Ellis, “Now, it costs me a hundred and fifty dollars to take three pigs.”

Fuel costs are also a factor. That’s why Sudduth and Ellis carpool to take their cows to the closest processing plant in Georgia.

They’re only taking one steer each due to limitations. It takes two years to raise a calf. One steer can make 600 pounds of meat. That’s enough to feed a family of four for about six months. It takes quite the investment.

“When this beef is ready, I’ll probably be going to drive down and pick it up in a Toyota minivan that gets much better fuel mileage,” said Ellis.

To help, the farmers suggest legislators make regulations size-appropriate for smaller facilities.

“What we need, in the industry, is a lot of younger farmers looking to the processing side, because if those processors aren’t there, we’re not in business,” said Sudduth.

We reached out to the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Agriculture.

GADOA says they created an incentive program to encourage the investment of small-scale processors.

And SCDOA says the state needs more processing capacity. The valued facilities we have are all fairly small, which is why many producers go out of state. They would love to keep that money here and provide more options for consumers seeking local meat. And they are working on some solutions to localize the supply chain. For one thing, SCDOA has asked the state legislature to direct some ARPA funding toward expanding meat processing. They also helped a group of farmers start a beef processing co-op. They’re helping them seek grants and work together to expand processing in South Carolina. Learn more here.