CHICO, Calif. - The coronavirus has put a lot of uncertainty in the beef market, leading ranchers to adapt to the times. Some have shifted their market strategy and have started selling some of their beef directly to the consumer, bypassing the feedlots and large meatpacking plants.
So the pandemic has affected everyone in California and this includes ranchers. I spoke to a rancher, Megan Brown, and she says that the uncertainty the coronavirus pandemic has presented has led them to change some of their methods.
Ranchers usually raise their cattle themselves, shipping them to feedlots to pack on some weight when they're ready, and then onto the meatpacking plants before making its way into grocery stores and restaurants. This three-step process has always had price fluctuations but ranchers have always been able to cope. Now that the coronavirus has shut some meatpacking plants and reduced operations in others, ranchers may be forced to look for alternative ways to sell their beef.
"Once you can't process beef and you can't process it through the process, then there's no place for it to go. So you've got a log jam right there and a big one," said Russel Reid, Professor of Equine & Ranch Management at Feather River College.
At first, this worried Megan Brown. She's a Butte County rancher who brings her cattle to Indian Valley in Plumas county during the summer to escape the heat.
"We held on to our herd until we thought the market would rise again and it did. So we actually got a decent price this year so we're not afraid for our future, we're okay. But it did really inspire us to try and market some different channels and just try and be a little more flexible," said Megan Brown, Butte & Plumas County rancher.
Brown says she plans to shift the way she markets her meat to direct to consumer as a way to deal with the market's uncertainty.
"By taking the middle man out, I am just working directly with the consumer, with you. So you have a lot more hands-on. You can come see these beefs before they are slaughtered. You can come feed them. You can really connect or not, it's really up to you. But it just gives the consumer and me a lot more freedom," said Brown.
I spoke with Dave Daley, the chair of the California Cattle Council and a Butte County rancher. He says direct-to-market beef is great in theory but local slaughterhouses are not as efficient as the larger plants and are sometimes short on USDA inspectors. He tells me larger plants can profit off of unpopular parts like the liver and heart by shipping them overseas. This makes operations more expensive for the slaughterhouses and prices higher for you.
But Brown and Professor Reid believe the benefits out way the drawbacks. High-quality meat that lasts a year all while supporting your local rancher. Just like a farmers market, it is a popular trend they believe will continue.
“Once you get this beef in your freezer and you feel the ultimate power of all this meat, this really high-quality meat, you don’t want to go back. It's hard," said Brown.
“People are willing to pay a little bit more knowing the quality of their food I think that’s going to continue," said Reid.
Brown says she plans to quadruple her direct-to-consumer beef next year.
"I think that the industry is resilient and I think we are going to make it through here. I am optimistic about the future but I think those challenges of the future make it really interesting too," said Reid.
FULL INTERVIEW with Professor Russell Reid is attached to this article. He talks about the economics behind ranching, how the coronavirus has disrupted the beef market and how ranchers are adapting.