Area farmers, local meat markets stepping up to provide products customers need

Though Shelby Toops doesn’t have a storefront out at Red Moon Ranch in South Vienna, she’s been overwhelmed with new customers and sales of her farm-to-table meat products since COVID-19 started changing how many people shop.

While Toops has built up a business following through her visits to Springfield’s Farmer’s Market last summer and the Worthington Farmer’s Market starting late last year, nothing could have prepared her for the way her business would boom when schools were closed and stay-at-home orders were put in place.

As it became difficult to find meat at some area grocery stores, Red Moon Ranch started getting a lot more calls and messages from new local customers.

“With all this going on, business has been better than it’s ever been,” Toops says. “I really hope that after all this is over, that I’ve gained a lot of new local and Springfield-area customers.”

Toops, a first-generation farmer, raises all the livestock on her farm by herself. From beef to pork and chicken to lamb, Toops has built Red Moon Ranch from the ground up.

Customers can call ahead and schedule a time to stop by the farm to purchase meat, eggs, or other items they’re interested in. To meet their needs, Toops set up an online ordering system about a month ago and began scheduling pickup dates twice a month in the parking lot of the Heritage Center.

“It’s nothing fancy, but this way I’m able to provide for that customer base,” she says. “Coming out to the farm is normally a pretty good drive for someone in Springfield, so the pickups work.

“My hope is that after all this, people will continue to support local farmers, and that they’ll remember that we were the ones still providing even when the grocery store shelves were empty.”

With her next Springfield pick-up scheduled for this Saturday, May 16, Toops says she’s currently low on available products.

“It’s very slim pickings right now. I’m picking up a whole lot of product from my processor in a couple days,” she says. “Everybody has been very patient and grateful, and I try to make sure to explain to people that beef doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.

“We’re all trying to provide for people, but with the panic buying, we can’t always keep up because this obviously wasn’t something we planned for,” she says. “Everyone has been very gracious and patient because it’s been a learning curve. The biggest thing I struggle with is trying to keep up with demand.”

But Toops says customers shouldn’t worry if her supply of what they’re looking for low for one pick up date because there’s more to come and no shortage of livestock.

The problem, however, is in getting products processed quickly enough to meet the current demand.

Stoops uses locally-owned J&L Farm Butcher Shop in Medway, which she said is fully booked through the end of the year. Toops, who says she likes to plan ahead, already has dates on the books for taking animals to be processed at J&L, and she says she’s thankful to have that working relationship with another local business she knows and trusts.

She says between farmers like her bringing in more livestock for processing than normal and the increase in families buying entire sides of beef – for example – that need butchered, local processors like J&L are as overwhelmed with business as she is.

Mike Janow, head meat cutter at Copey’s Butcher Shop in Medway, says typically Copey’s processes not only their own livestock, but also does custom orders for families  and farmers who need their personal supplies of meat butchered.

The family-owned shop is a staple in Medway and is relied upon not only for cuts of meat, but also for deli meats, cheeses, frozen products, homemade salads, pies, and much more.

“Because of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been so busy that we’re not having enough time to process the custom cattle, so we’re working Sundays and Mondays (when the business is usually closed) trying to get that done,” he says, adding that they’ve tried to limit custom orders right now in order to make time to process the additional meat products they need to supply daily storefront customers.

And the number of storefront customers has greatly increased, with a social-distanced line that, at-times, winds out of the front door and around the parking lot.

“I believe we have had some new customers. We’re really happy about that, and we hope they come back,” Janow says. “I do think that there are people that are looking for more local places because they figure we always have meat.”

While Copey’s would occasionally supplement their meat cases with products purchased outside their own livestock, Janow says they’ve had to increase their amount of supplemental products to try to keep up with demand.

‘We’re just trying to get as many people meat who want it as we can. It’s a challenge right now,” he says. “You might order 20 cases right now and get two – so it’s rough.”

Janow says the limited meat supply is not because of a shortage of livestock, but rather because of the closure of multiple of the major meat processing plants nationally. Multiple of the plants were closed in the last couple weeks because of major outbreaks of coronavirus among employees.

The national processing dilemma has also caused meat prices to skyrocket in the last week, he says.

“It’s crazy how much it went up over such a short period of time. I’ve been here 22 years and I’ve never ever seen it so high before, ever,” Janow says. “Customers are going to see rising costs because the prices for what we’re bringing in have almost doubled. If we sold our products for what we sold them for a week ago, we wouldn’t have a shop.”

However, Janow says he’s hopeful prices will return to what customers are used to once the major processing plants are back up and running.

Matt Dibert is the sales manager at Fink Meat Company in Springfield, and he also says they’re experiencing the same rapid price increases from the sellers they buy from.

Fink’s is a wholesaler that processes meat to sell to restaurants and institutions, Dibert says. Since dine-in restaurant service stopped weeks ago and many restaurants closed, Dibert says the company lost about half its business.

“We’ve always sold meat to the public, but we’ve never much advertised it,” says Dibert, who explains that the county fair pork chops and seasoning are some of their best sellers, especially during cook-out months. “We’d always have people stop in, but nothing like this where we’ve had people line up out the door.”

Like Copey’s, Fink’s has become a reliable outlet for new and returning local customers to find people that they haven’t been able to find on grocery shelves during the past couple months.

“It’s worked out that we could stay open. I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have the retail side,” Dibert says. “This is making up about 25 percent of what we lost, so we’re at least able to keep everything paid and keep the doors open.

“And, we felt like we’ve helped the people around here because they got tired of going to the store not knowing what they were going to be able to get. The can come here and know what they’re going to get.”

Dibert says customers have been appreciative of the service Fink’s has been able to provide – including some fresh meat, such as ground chuck and pork loin, and some frozen, packaged meats, such as a steak box and meat variety box.

“Our hope is that after all this is over, we can go back to doing what we always did before, but we can keep a percentage of our retail business,” he says.

And with the prices of the products they usually bring in continuing to climb, Dibert says Fink’s will work to keep consumer cost down as low as they can for as long as they can.

“We’re fortunate that we saw this coming, and we loaded up as much as we could,” he says. “So, we’re not going to pay these prices. We’re going to ride it out with what we’ve got and hopefully prices will readjust.”

Janow and Dibert both agree that while customers should still be able to get meat – especially from local shops like theirs – they might end up shouldering some of the increased costs until the processing pipeline is back up and running at full force.

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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