Farmers rise to meet demand for locally raised beef

COVID-19 and the events of last year definitely caused a stir in the agriculture sector.
Alissa Grenawalt standing with cows
Photo by Amandalynn Jones

I’ve been a farm girl all my life. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you my favorite part about farming is raising beef cattle. I wear many hats, as all farmers do. But farming is not my day job — other family members primarily operate our family farm near Beloit. For the past 19 years, I have worked for UW–Extension, where I currently serve as the educational program coordinator for the Dane County Ag in the Classroom program, a new partnership with the Dane County Farm Bureau. I’m fortunate to be able to stay true to my country roots by working with youth and families to better educate people about where their food and fiber come from.

COVID-19 and the events of last year definitely caused a stir in the agriculture sector. When everything shut down in spring 2020, this included large-scale packing plants across the country that procure and harvest a large portion of the beef, pork, dairy and other proteins from farmers across the country.

It caused a major hiccup in the food supply chain and many farmers had to think outside the box about how to sell products they historically had no problem marketing. I’m sure a number of you went to your local grocery store at the start of the pandemic in April 2020, only to find high prices and the meat case empty.

Direct selling of beef locally has been a growing enterprise for our farm and for other farmers as well. Our animals have been raised from birth to finish (which is usually 13-18 months on average) and fed a mixture of corn silage, hay and grain, which we grow on the farm. We take pride in the wholesome, homegrown meat our animals produce. Our direct sales of beef doubled in 2020.

Even though Wisconsin ranks second in the country in the number of meat locker plants, these plants quickly filled up their harvest dates when the pandemic hit, as large operations could not function, and they are currently booking out a year (or more) in advance. Previously, it was “normal” for farmers to plan six months in advance at most.

We are also seeing a shift in buying. Families want local beef and other locally produced agriculture products now more than ever. However, as small-scale beef farmers, we’ve found it challenging to ensure that current customers get what they want while we grow our customer base in the wake of increased demand.

cows

Photo by Amandalynn Jones

Many of my farmer friends have experienced the same challenges and are looking at new ways to sell beef. Many use social media accounts or their own websites to reach new audiences. I have also seen an increase in the number of neighbors working together to help others who are seeing a tension between supply and demand. My hope is that farmers will continue to innovate and find new paths forward.

How long will this increased demand for local beef last? Time will tell. But if you’re looking for great home-raised beef, there are many local farmers who would be willing to sell it to you. You may need to be patient, but it will definitely be worth the wait.

Alissa Grenawalt currently serves as the educational program coordinator for Dane County’s Ag in the Classroom program. She also helps out at her family’s beef operation, Grenawalt Farms Red Angus, in southwest Rock County.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine