MANHATTAN, Kan. — “We couldn’t keep up with the demand”
This statement was heard across the country in small, medium and large meat processing plants during the COVID-19 pandemic, including at Heritage Meats in Leoti. The meat locker was started in 2003 by the Decker family. Darwin Decker is the owner and self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, his wife, Darlene, manages the finances and their son, Tyler, is the production manager.
In March 2020, the family meat processing business changed dramatically. Decker says once the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, he could not keep ground beef packages on his store shelves. Customers began calling nonstop to preorder beef and pork and local ranchers began booking processing dates for multiple animals on multiple days on the 2020 calendar.
“It was pure panic,” Decker says. “There was no way to keep up with retail demand. Ground beef flew off the shelves even though we did the best we could. Scheduling was through the roof.”
Heritage Meats kept processing normal numbers (12 beef and 15 pigs each week) but began scheduling farther and farther out.
Decker compared the beef and pork sales spike to that of the demand on toilet paper.
“If people believe they will be short on something, they think, ‘Let’s buy more just to make sure I’ve got enough,’” he says.
Decker says the COVID-19 panic was evident when many customers asked to preorder large amounts of ground beef.
“Why would an old lady living by herself need 100 pounds of ground beef?” he says. “There was also panic that big beef-packing houses wouldshut down. Large plants may have closed for a week or so, but the supply chain never totally stopped.”
During the spring of 2020, national news media reported ranchers were in fear of no market for their cattle and began putting down cows and burying them. Although there were reports of this, no large-scale depopulation of cattle or other livestock occurred in Kansas because of the pandemic.
And, to add to the chaos, Decker says when customers chose to stock up on beef and pork, they also realized the need for freezer space. That meant a run on deep freezers in stores and online. He says his meat customers came in asking if he knew of freezers for sale.
As a business owner, Decker says it was great to have customer demand for his product, but the stress of questions, rumors and overall panic wore on the Decker family. He says he would wake up each morning and say a prayer asking for grace from God to handle the stress before going to work.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered marketing plans for many ranchers as well, Decker says. One rancher called Heritage Meats and scheduled to bring in four head of cattle every two weeks for the next few months. Decker put the beef on the locker schedule with intentions to process them, but when demand settled down last winter, he learned the same local rancher was stuck with six freezers at home full of beef. Without a solid marketing plan to sell his beef, Decker says this rancher had to cancel 15 head of cattle coming to Heritage Meats for processing.
“Producers thought, ‘I have beef and I want to sell it to bigger cities like Wichita and Kansas City,’” Decker says. “The price of cattle went down in March 2020 so low that ranchers began to worry they wouldn’t have a place for their cattle, so they scheduled unrealistic plans to sell beef. The problem arose when, for example, a rancher who normally schedules two head for processing every six months called to schedule two and three times as many head.”
This issue caused a backlog in processing and any rancher who was not on the meat processor’s schedule was pushed out for weeks and sometimes even months.
Cattle and hogs become physically market ready at specific weights. The lack of processor availability meant some animals were harvested under or over weights for ideal meat flavor and palatability. As of March 2021, Heritage Meats doesn’t have available processing space for cattle or hogs until January 2022.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heritage Meats would sell a box of 20 individually wrapped one-pound beef bundles to a customer every so often. After March 2020, Decker says customers were buying multiple boxes at a time so his store limited customers to one box per day.
“We were selling 500 pounds of ground beef a day compared to our normal 80 to 100 pounds,” Decker says. “We had to tell customers, ‘We are here. We are not going anywhere. We just can’t produce it any faster. Come back and we will take care of you.’”
Most of Darlene Decker’s days were spent on the phone talking people down from panic and reassuring them they would have food to eat. She says customers needed to understand cattle and hogs were still being processed and beef and pork would still be sold from their hometown meat processor.
When the scheduling of cattle and hogs to process became panic driven, Decker knew he had to help control the stress level of his employees. Controlling emotions was a big part of the COVID-19 pandemic challenge for his business.
“We made it through all that,” he says. “We are back to normal now. At the time, we had customers coming from Colorado to buy beef and we processed pigs from Nebraska. Now that emotion has slowed down.”
One outcome of the pandemic, Decker says, could be that folks who purchased freezers will feel pressure to fill those freezers on a regular basis. The visual of a large, empty freezer could mean the demand for a quarter beef and a half hog from the middle-American family could continue.
Decker has expanded the focus of Heritage Meats to include delivery service to grocery stores and residences in southwestern Kansas. Decker began the delivery service by creating an email list distributed once a month to interested customers. Readers can look through Heritage Meats inventory, send in their orders and Decker will deliver to their home area.
The impact Heritage Meats may have had on future meat consumers is impossible to realize but Decker says the panic created among consumers for large quantities of beef and pork has showcased where meat comes from.
“Folks in cities relied on Kroger and King Soopers and Sam’s Club for their quality beef because that’s all they knew,” Decker says. “Those stores sell the volume but today we see customers willing to pay for, and wait for, quality beef grown locally. It’s always been there but now they know it.”
FAMILY BUSINESS FOR THE LONG HAUL
Heritage Meats has a family history in meat processing, stemming from Decker’s business partner whose grandfather worked in the industry. The business has six full-time and two part-time employees. To keep up with industry trends and continuing education, Heritage Meats is a member of the Kansas Meat Processing Association and the American Meat Processing Association. Decker is also active with an online chat group with processors from Canada to Louisiana. He says he has learned the most on how to handle COVID-19 pandemic demands from these memberships.
“I’ve learned a lot about curing and processing from those groups,” Decker says. “Nothing accounts for hands-on experience but having the chat group to visit with was valuable during the challenge of the past year. Everyone was facing stressful times in the meat processing business.”
The Decker family raises cattle themselves, with a small cow-calf operation as a side gig to owning and operating Heritage Meats. And despite the crazy ride of 2020, Decker says he will keep his promise to southwestern Kansas customers that his business is not going anywhere.
“I like the story that goes along with our business,” Decker says. “We see a product grow from birth to the end result. And it’s a family business for so many of our beef and pork customers who sell their animals to us.”
Decker received federal CARES Act funding and purchased new equipment to improve efficiency at Heritage Meats. He offers a full line of fresh beef and pork products including 15 kinds of sausage and a wide variety of ready-to-eat products including beef and pork snack sticks and summer sausage.
As for the future of the meat processing industry, Decker says there is a new sense of normal. He knows he’s filled a lot more freezers than before COVID-19 came to town and until those empty out, Decker doesn’t expect demand to slow down completely. He says when folks who’ve been selling beef to their friends and neighbors need a new batch, he hopes they call Heritage Meats.
“We are a service business,” Decker says. “We are customizing and selling a raw product directly to the consumer. And we are wired to please the consumers, even during a pandemic.”
To view Heritage Meats’ inventory, go to www.heritage-meats.com.
— Rhonda McCurry, Kansas Living Magazine, a publication of Kansas Farm Bureau
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