Farmers hurt by bottleneck in food processing nationwide

Coronavirus

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL / WFXR) – The effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple through the food industry nationwide. As some are predicting that the country is on the brink of widespread meat shortage, local farmers say it does not start with them.

Barry Bales owns Bales Farm in Mosheim, Tennessee.

“This farm’s been in my family since 1882,” says Bales.

Over the past few months, business has actually been booming on the farm. When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, people were in a rush to buy.

“From February to April we saw about a twelve hundred percent increase in business,” says Bales.

As meat can be hard to find in stores, the life-time farmer says it is not so much due to a shortage as it is a bottleneck in the food processing system nationwide.

“Everybody talks about a shortage of this, shortage of that, and they are seeing that in the grocery stores. There is no shortage of stock,” says Bales.

Even though business might be on the rise for local farmers, the pandemic leaves the future unknown.

“The demand is there, we have customers that want it. And we just can’t provide it right now because we can’t get into the processor,” says Bales.

That is a big problem. If farmers cannot get their animals to a food processor on time, they cannot get the food to your plate.

Local processors typically used by Bales Farm for their livestock are backed up through December. Bales believes the problem comes as the huge agriculture companies like Tyson, JBS and Smithfield are clogging up local channels in a rush to get their meat processed too.

“Everybody out there is scrambling to find an answer and it’s the shortage of processing. Those facilities are so big, and the workers are working at a breakneck pace. Then you throw in something like the pandemic of coronavirus… that doesn’t work under those conditions.”

But, here locally, the sales continue.

“In true Appalachian form we are still strong, our food system here is still strong,” says Rachel Wheeler, Vice President of the Tennessee Association of Farmer’s Markets.

She agrees with Bales: our local farms are thriving.

“While we are watching what feels like disaster around us, in this region is not the case. We are still solid,” says Wheeler.

Farmer’s Markets reopening across the Tri-Cities contributes to successful sales for local farmers, but consumers have been steadily supporting local farms since the start of the pandemic.

Even amid a good season, Bales is hoping for more good. He wants some change to come to the farming industry as a whole. He believes the current food processing crisis is evidence of the shortfalls of the big agricultural companies and their “monopoly” over the food industry nationwide.

“In my estimation, it’s been an accident waiting to happen and this COVID-19 pandemic is just showing all the problems with it,” says Bales.

He added that though farmers are some of the most resistant to change, this should be a wake-up call.

“We are paying the price. The consumer is seeing, no pun intended, how the sausage is being made.”

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