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Ag adapting to a changing world

Pandemic disrupts food supply chain, pushes farmers to be versatile

Marty Yahner walks among the black angus steers at Yahner Brother Farms outside of Patton. / Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The coronavirus pandemic has left a significant mark on the agriculture industry — but it has also provided a learning experience.

“Perhaps the biggest lesson for agriculture to come out of the pandemic is how important it is for our food supply chain to be able to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Early in the pandemic we saw the food supply chain disrupted in two major ways,” said Liam Migdail, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman.

There were major bottlenecks in food processing.

“There were COVID-19 outbreaks that simultaneously closed two major meat-packing plants that process a significant segment of Pennsylvania beef. Farmers scheduled appointments to take their livestock to market months in advance, which meant other processing facilities were already at capacity and could not accept additional livestock,” Migdail said. “Once processing plants did reopen, they did so at reduced capacity so we were still working through that backlog well into the summer. Many food processing facilities that did not need to shut down had to operate at reduced capacity as well so they could make necessary safety upgrades.”

The pandemic caused changes to the food supply chain.

“Just about everything about how people buy food changed overnight and became very unpredictable, which upended the whole system,” he said. “We saw wild shifts in demand between periods of panic buying at the supermarkets, restaurants and institutional food service closing and people changing what types of foods they were consuming because they were eating at home instead of out.”

Bottlenecks and breakdowns in the supply chain made it more difficult for food produced on farms to reach consumers.

“That resulted in supply shortages and increased prices at the supermarket. At the same time, farmers were continuing to produce food but received lower prices and had difficulty marketing their products,” Migdail said.

“The pandemic rapidly changed consumers’ needs — no meals were being served in schools and no restaurants were buying food. Those consumption changes impacted the agricultural supply chain between retailers and processors and farmers. Farmers were growing food for anticipated customers that didn’t exist anymore,” said Carissa Itle Westrick, spokeswoman for Vale Wood Farms in Loretto.

Westrick said Vale Wood was lucky to be its own supply chain.

“We produce, process and deliver milk and dairy products to local customers. Our customer needs were changing real-time during the early days of the pandemic, but we are so thankful to have had the tools to adapt. It wasn’t always pretty, but we knew at the end of the day it was up to us to figure out our changing market and adapt,” Westrick said.

Some agriculture related businesses fared well during the pandemic. Buying local became more important.

“People want to buy local food from local farmers and patronize local businesses and local butchers. That’s great,” said Marty Yahner, co-owner of Yahner Bros. Farm in Patton. “The only good thing to come out of the pandemic is that Americans maybe now have a better appreciation of where their food comes from and understand that the food chain is fragile and easily broken.

“I’m now getting repeat customers from last year as well as new ones. People tell me they will never buy beef from supermarkets again after they taste our high quality Angus beef. And they save money buying in bulk.”

Yahner said he increased advertising via social media.

“I was interviewed by two local newspapers on how farmers were changing their business and marketing plans due to the pandemic. This led to 12 to 15 inquiries per day with almost all customers placing orders for freezer beef,” Yahner said.

Though COVID-19 caused many challenges, the Yahners went from selling a minimal amount of freezer beef direct to customers to selling 140 steers to over 200 customers. Many have told the Yahners that they would be repeat customers. Marty and his brother continue to advertise their freezer beef and hope to increase sales.

Meanwhile, Gearhart’s Meats and Country Store in Hollidaysburg saw an increase in butchering.

“Instead of butchering four beef a year, I went to about 70 beef over the last nine months. With the meat shortage, people would come here and buy a quarter. People are back home cooking and want to have something in their freezer. As far as butchering, we gained a lot of customers. I have people who bought two halves since May and are still buying,” owner Tom Gearhart said.

The pandemic has provided a learning experience for the agriculture industry.

“You better be versatile,” Gearhart said. “Diversity is the key for a lot of businesses. You have to be able to adapt.”

Gearhart said he lost catering business during the pandemic and plans to resume catering, but probably not until next year.

“If there is a silver lining for agriculture from this pandemic, it’s that consumers have come to realize that maybe they shouldn’t rely on getting food from the closest big box store. By building relationships with local farmers, consumers can have access to fresh food while supporting other local families and in turn, supporting their communities. Doing business with your neighbors helps to sustain local economies, and we all benefit from that,” Westrick said.

Migdail said one silver lining of the pandemic has been that it brought greater awareness to where our food comes from.

“Prior to last year, most American consumers had not lived through an event where they could not find what food they were looking for at the grocery store. We’ve seen the events of the past year bring a new appreciation for the work that farmers do and the importance of having an accessible, homegrown food supply,” Migdail said.

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