FARM­ERS ARE FIND­ING WAYS TO STAY AFLOAT

Bro­ken food sup­ply chain has some con­sumers buy­ing their own pigs

Calgary Herald - - FP CALGARY - EL­IZ­A­BETH REM­BERT and PRATIK PARIJA

Bro­ken sup­ply chains have left farm­ers across the globe with mounds of food waste. Fac­ing the prospect of plow­ing over fields and eu­th­a­niz­ing pigs, some of these farm­ers — like Clint and Shelly Pinkel­man — are mit­i­gat­ing their losses by go­ing straight to con­sumers.

When coro­n­avirus out­breaks forced shut­downs at Smith­field Foods Inc., Shelly sprang into ac­tion. She se­cured sales for their small Ne­braskan farm through a grapevine of friends and fam­ily and booked spots at meat pro­ces­sors that can han­dle in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals. About 300 of the 600 hogs that were ready for mar­ket have been sold, Clint said, and many of them fetched above-mar­ket prices.

“We’ve had peo­ple con­tact us for our hogs from Colorado, west­ern Ne­braska, way up in South Dakota, and we tell them ‘Lis­ten, there are other hog farm­ers like us. Go talk to your lo­cal guy and help them out, we’re not the only ones hurt­ing,’” he said.

It’s a scene that, in vary­ing forms, is play­ing out around the world:

In­dian wa­ter­melon grow­ers are load­ing up tractors to sell fruit in nearby vil­lages; U.K. whole­salers are redi­rect­ing sup­plies that restau­rants no longer want; Florida blue­berry pro­duc­ers are set­ting up road­side stands.

The new work­arounds can limit some of the waste that’s piled up. Sad­dled with snarled trans­porta­tion, labour crunches, restau­rant shut­downs and plant clo­sures, farm­ers were forced to smash eggs, dump milk and cull hogs. While the direct-to-con­sumer sales are un­likely to re­cover all of that, they can at least help to make a dent and cre­ate an ad­di­tional avenue for peo­ple to get ac­cess to food at a time when gro­cery stores have had dif­fi­culty keep­ing shelves stocked.

Some farm­ers, es­pe­cially in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where sup­ply chains can be brit­tle even in nor­mal times, could see the changes last be­yond the pan­demic. Star­tups are cre­at­ing on­line mar­ket­places to help con­nect grow­ers di­rectly with buy­ers, and pro­duc­ers are on wait­ing lists to get added even as lock­down re­stric­tions ease.

Even in the U.S., some of the new sell­ing meth­ods will stick around after plants are back up and gro­cery shelves are stocked. Con­sumers are putting more thought into where their food comes from and do­ing more long-term meal plan­ning, said Dana Gun­ders, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for REFED, a non­profit that fo­cuses on re­duc­ing food waste in the U.S. De­mand for things like CSA (com­mu­nity-sup­ported agri­cul­ture) boxes of pro­duce has gone up and will likely stay that way, ac­cord­ing to Jen­nifer Moli­dor, a se­nior food cam­paigner at the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity.

For hog farm­ers like the Pinkel­mans, find­ing con­sumers to di­rectly buy an­i­mals can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween bankruptcy and stay­ing afloat. Even as Amer­i­can meat plants start to re­open un­der an ex­ec­u­tive or­der from U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, the fa­cil­i­ties are run­ning below nor­mal ca­pac­ity amid worker ab­sen­teeism. The pork in­dus­try is also work­ing through a back­log of an­i­mals that’s dent­ing over­all de­mand, so Clint and Shelly say they ex­pect to keep sell­ing in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals direct to con­sumer for some time to come.

“We’re ei­ther go­ing to get on top of this or we’re go­ing to lose,” she said.

The big ques­tion here: What does a con­sumer do once they’ve se­cured their own hog? The an­swer: Find a lo­cal pro­ces­sor, some­times called a meat locker, that can take on the task of turn­ing a pig into pork chops.

Those pro­cess­ing slots are fill­ing up fast, said Rebecca Thistleth­waite, direc­tor of the Niche Meat Pro­ces­sor As­sis­tance Net­work, which has around 1,500 small pro­ducer and pro­ces­sor mem­bers.

In some places, the wait is now as long as 12 months, she said. Some farm­ers are re­ly­ing on mo­bile slaugh­ter trucks that have shorter wait times, but then the car­cass still needs to be bro­ken down fur­ther by a butcher.

Of­ten, as in the case of the Pinkel­mans, the farm­ers help set their cus­tomers up with meat lock­ers, but some are just sell­ing live an­i­mals and let­ting the buy­ers fig­ure out what to do.

“Maybe there’s a hunter in the fam­ily or some­one knows how to kill an an­i­mal,” Thistleth­waite said. “At the very least, there are Youtube tu­to­ri­als that work, es­pe­cially for smaller an­i­mals like chick­ens.”

When Que­bec went into lock­down a lit­tle more than two months ago, Saint-Jérôme, Que. based Gas­por Farms’ mar­ket dis­ap­peared overnight. The fam­ily busi­ness, which sold 95 per cent of its milk-fed piglet prod­ucts to high-end restau­rants in the prov­ince and be­yond, took to so­cial me­dia to find new cus­tomers. The farm started to of­fer as­sort­ment boxes of sausages, ribs and ham to con­sumers. The com­pany in May sold 300 to 400 boxes a week and was work­ing on a new e-com­merce plat­form.

Chang­ing the model, “it helped keep the com­pany alive,” said co-owner Alexan­dre Au­bin. “I’m not say­ing it’s as much as be­fore, there’s still an after-shock, but we’re ad­just­ing bet­ter and bet­ter.” Find­ing buy­ers isn’t al­ways easy. Vinod Pati­dar is a fruit and soy­bean farmer in the cen­tral In­dian state of Mad­hya Pradesh. This year, he planted about four acres of pa­payas, but was forced to plow over close to half that. The rest of the fruit he’s still try­ing to sell, in­clud­ing di­rectly to con­sumers, but he’s hav­ing trou­ble find­ing cus­tomers.

“I tried sell­ing pa­paya in nearby ar­eas but no­body was will­ing to buy,” partly be­cause peo­ple are wor­ried about virus trans­mis­sion in the hand-to-hand sales, he said. He es­ti­mates he’ll lose 350,000 ru­pees (US$4,645) to 400,000 ru­pees from the pa­paya crop this year, com­pared with a profit of about 400,000 ru­pees last sea­son.

And while the new chan­nels are cut­ting down on some of the food waste, there are other chal­lenges, said Gun­ders of REFED. Larger fa­cil­i­ties are held back by their rigid pro­duc­tion in­fra­struc­tures, and for farm­ers, it can be hard to pivot to direct-to-con­sumer sim­ply be­cause of the large scales of pro­duc­tion they work in, she said

“A grower can’t just take a semitruck load of broc­coli to the farm­ers’ mar­ket — it’s hard to deal in those vol­umes,” she said.

That’s where star­tups like In­dia’s Nin­jacart, which buys di­rectly from farm­ers and sells to re­tail­ers and restau­rants, see an op­por­tu­nity. Pro­duc­ers are look­ing for mul­ti­ple chan­nels to con­nect with cus­tomers, ac­cord­ing to co-founder Va­sude­van Chin­nathambi. The com­pany has re­cently added 120 farm­ers to its plat­form and has a “huge back­log” of oth­ers wait­ing to get on, even as lock­down re­stric­tions ease in the coun­try, he said.

In Malaysia, Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd.’s e-com­merce site Lazada is also adding more agri­cul­tural busi­nesses and farm­ers onto its plat­form.

Farm­ers from Cameron High­lands, Malaysia’s key veg­etable-grow­ing area, are sell­ing about 1.5 met­ric tonnes (3,307 pounds) of veg­eta­bles a day on the plat­form, which then get de­liv­ered straight to con­sumers, Lazada Malaysia chief oper­at­ing of­fi­cer Shah Suriye Rub­hen said by email.

“We ex­tended the lim­i­ta­tions of their tra­di­tional sup­ply chains by de­liv­er­ing straight to cus­tomers’ doorsteps, po­ten­tially reach­ing one-third of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion,” he said.

DAN BROUIL­LETTE/BLOOMBERG

Hog farm­ers are adapt­ing work­arounds, in­clud­ing sell­ing di­rectly to con­sumers, in or­der to limit food waste and keep their oper­a­tions alive. COVID-19 dis­rup­tions have snarled the sup­ply chain and labour. Even as economies open up, worker ab­sen­teeism is a prob­lem.

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