Bill Pearce was exhausted.
He had slaughtered, cleaned and prepared 15 hogs for cold storage Friday, then cleaned himself and the slaughter room at his small meatpacking plant just outside Ashland on Dahlstrom Road.
Pearce and his wife Gina have run Pearce’s Sausage Kitchen for the past 30 years and he has never seen anything like the demand he’s experienced since coronavirus struck.
“I have gotten to the place where I just can’t accept any more animals,” he said.
That’s a common refrain across the country as the backed-up supply chain has rippled through the food industry. With fewer people eating at restaurants and a lot of school meal programs shut down or reduced in scale, demand for meat has declined. That has left a surplus of animals ready for market, but several large slaughterhouses and meatpackers also have shut down as the virus has raced through their employee ranks.
Farmers increasingly have turned to small-scale meat processors like Pearce, who said he would add employees to help with the new demand if he could.
“It’s hard work, and most young people would rather do something else,” he said. “We don’t even try anymore. We just can’t find any skilled labor. They don’t want to do this.”
“Finding someone who is qualified is the hard part,” said Gina Pearce. “Just because a guy can cut up his deer, that doesn’t mean he is qualified.”
Thus the Pearces face a dilemma they thought they’d never see — unprecedented demand that they simply can’t answer.
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, by June 6 at least 20,400 workers at more than 216 meatpacking plants across the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 with at least 63 deaths. In spite of enhanced health precautions, including physical barriers between workers, mandatory use of facemasks, daily temperature checks and enhanced testing for the virus, those numbers continue to rise.
According to USA Today, COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities led to the closure of nearly two dozen meatpacking plants by the time President Trump issued an executive order declaring the plants an essential operation and requiring them to remain open under the Defense Production Act on April 28. Since then, an additional 13 plants have temporarily closed.
Locally, farmers are being forced to slaughter their animals and send them to rendering plants rather than meat-cutters because there just aren’t enough around to do the job, Pearce said.
“Lately we’ve been working seven days a week with all the pigs we have been dealing with,” he said.
He has also seen farmers who want him to slaughter their cattle, then turn the meat into hamburger, which the farmers can sell themselves. A growing group of local consumers seem to trust meat from small butchers and are willing to pay for it.
“Before this, we didn’t have that much local support; it’s a lot quicker for convenience just to go out to Walmart,” he said.
Pearce said he does not compete with operations like Walmart on price, but he said big operations like that couldn’t match the freshness and quality of the products he offers.
“Every once in a while we have run meat products that have come out of Canada, but we don’t use any foreign meat from places like Argentina,” he said.
Most of Pearce’s business is custom meat processing, slaughtering the animals and packing the meat for sale.
“We don’t sell to any stores; we do a couple of restaurants in town that we have done for years. Places like River Rock sell our jerky,” he said.
Pearce knows this is a situation that cannot last forever. The virus inevitably will take its toll.
“There are a lot fewer farmers now than there used to be, and after this, there will probably be even fewer,” he said.
Small slaughter and packing operations like Pierce’s Sausage Kitchen are also a gradually vanishing breed,
“When we started out, there were like 12 plants in the northern tier. Now there are only Jim’s in Iron River, us, the one in Superior, O’dovero’s in Mellen, and Butternut has a place, but otherwise that’s all. When our meat inspector used to stop here, he would go to six or eight places in the Ashland and Washburn area, but now they are pretty much gone.”
Pearce said he and Gina will wield their knives as long as they can, helping out local farmers and customers.
“Maybe our grandson will want to take it over,” he said.