It has been a banner spring for Vermont’s farmers who raise animals for meat, especially for farmers who grass feed their livestock.
According to Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, sales are up significantly for Vermont’s meat producers, many of whom have experienced “unprecedented sales” in March and April.
“Many member farms are selling out of a season’s worth of product well before the season typically gets started,” she said. VGFA represents 74 farms.
Cynthia Larson, the owner with her husband Richard, of Larson Farm in Wells, said sales for their products have nearly doubled from last year. Larson Farm sells butter, yogurt, cream-topped milk, skyr yogurt (Icelandic cultured dairy product similar to Greek yogurt but with a milder flavor) and beef. Their spring sales of beef is already sold out. “What we usually sell by June is already gone,” she said.
Larson attributes much of the increase to the response to the COVIP-19 pandemic. “Although I definitely wouldn’t want to prosper at the suffering of others, there has been a silver lining to the pandemic, many, many more people are thinking local for their food, and that is good for us and good for Vermont” she said.
All of Larson’s products come from grass-fed cattle, a farming method Cynthia believes is much better for both the land and the water quality.
“We share a vision of healthy communities, healthy people and a sustainable food system built on good stewardship of our natural resources. Healthy soils mean healthy cattle who produce nutrient-rich foods free of artificial chemicals and pesticides,” she said.
Ashlyn Bristle and Abraham McClurg, who operate a small, raw milk dairy farm in Brattleboro and produce beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, and rabbit, plus grow array of vegetables, have seen a 300 percent increase in sales over this time last year. They sell their grass-fed meat products at their farm store and through community supported agriculture shares. Typically the CSA meat is harder to sell than vegetables but this year their meat sold out two months ahead of the deadline. To meet demand, they increased the number of shares available and again sold out.
Bristle attributes the increased sales to customers being concerned about food security and wanting to limit human contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are so glad people are turning to us for food,” he said. “I would like to believe that people saw that local food was there for them when they needed it.”
Sheradin agrees that fear created by COVID-19 has helped local farmers.
“The pandemic has driven many Vermonters to look to their neighboring farms to supply them with food. While this has put welcomed pressure on the farms to meet increased household demand, it has also put pressure on our local slaughter facilities, who are key to keeping the supply of local meat flowing. Keeping their facilities open is contingent on keeping their staff healthy. Our farmers are very fortunate to have local slaughter facilities, which do not exist in many parts of the country. These facilities are essential and absolutely under celebrated for the work they are doing.” Sheradin said.
For Janet Steward and Ray Shatney of Greenfield Highland Beef with farms in Plainfield and Greensboro Bend, changes caused by the pandemic have been both positive and challenging. On the positive side Highland Beef has sold more beef to local residents. The challenge has been finding new markets for their beef.
“It’s been a very buy spring for sure but when the restaurants closed we had to find news ways to market our beef,” Steward said. “We’ve seen a great increase in sales to locals. There is definitely greater awareness of local products.”
Sheradin agrees Vermonters are buying more local products. “In a rural state like Vermont our farmers are literally next door, and they are able to provide product that one may struggle to find in the conventional food chain,” she said. As a result of the virus pandemic, customers have welcomed services such as curbside pickup, deliveries, and online ordering, she said.
Brisk sales and fears caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have lead to the perception that food is not available, Sheradin said, but Vermonters should not fear because “animals are continually moving through our local processing facilities, so meat will continue to be available.”
“What consumers are likely to experience with local meat production is an ebb and flow of availability. Customers may not get the exact type or cut of meat that they want each week, but those products may be available the next week,” she said.
According to Sheradin, the pandemic has disrupted the labor pools. “Many of our farms employ seasonal staff, generally college age folks that come from outside from Vermont to work and live on a farm for the summer. The pandemic has upset these plans, forcing our farmers to seek out new labor in the midst of responding to the increase in market demand.”
The biggest impact caused by the COVID-19 for Carol Dickson and Bruce Howlett, owners of Bobolink Farm in East Montpelier, is the demand for their sheep from people who want to raise their own meat. So far they have sold 10 lambs and expect to sell 20 or 30 more.
“There definitely is interest in local grown food, not just for grass-fed animals but for all local products,” Howlett said.
Although a fast-growing business nationwide, the grass-fed meat industry currently comprises just 4% of the annual $78.2 billion meat products industry in the United States and 75% to 80% of the meat from grass-fed cattle is imported from South America and Australia, according to the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.