WAPAKONETA — Despite indications that Ohio could begin as early as May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions associated with the COVID-19 virus, fears and concerns associated with the pandemic are still prevalent in the minds of citizens.
Among those fears is the ability to put affordable food on the table.
In the early days of the pandemic, grocery stores experienced runs on some products and shortages of others, but supplies have for the most part been able to keep up with consumer demands. Individuals in the agribusiness community are confident Ohio farmers will continue to meet the needs of the public.
Chris Kah, owner of Kah Meats in Wapakoneta, said the demand for bulk orders of beef and pork has skyrocketed at his business as fears associated with the coronavirus linger.
“Right now there’s been a big surge in orders for sides and quarters of beef and for half hogs,” Kah said. “And at least 50% of those orders are from new customers. People are just wanting to fill their freezers.”
The company butchers its own steers and hogs and orders chicken products from an off-site provider. Kah said supply of available beef and pork “was kind of low a few weeks ago, but it’s pretty good right now. But we are three or four weeks behind in filling orders. We just can’t process the meat fast enough.”
He said walk-in business at the Keller Drive business in Wapakoneta is brisk.
“There have been a lot of walk-ins; definitely more than normal,” he said.
Bingo Farms, located in Mercer County just south of Mendon, prides itself on pasture-fed cattle raised on a 12-acre farm. The family-owned business was started in 2014.
Ben Neff, who along with his brother-in-law Aaron Tong are co-owners of Bingo Farms, said orders for quarters of beef have already been depleted for the spring and summer months.
“We’re taking orders for the fall now,” Neff said. “People are wanting to get on the list because they’re realizing that Walmart may not always be open” if the coronavirus lingers.
“Customers have been contacting me more than usual, wanting to stock up their freezers. I’ve gotten messages from people as far away as Fremont,” he said. “In past years our customers have been people who care about quality, but now we’re hearing from those who just fear that the big box stores could close.”
There is a degree of irony in the sudden boom in business Bingo Farms is experiencing.
“We had talked about scaling back our operation a little bit, but I’m re-thinking that right now,” Neff said with a laugh. “We usually raise 12 to 15 head of beef per year, and it seems like I could sell twice that much this year.”
Most farm sectors affected
Ty Higgins, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said that while the virus has had a detrimental financial impact on Ohio’s farmers, consumers can be confident that supplies of beef, pork and milk are adequate to keep grocers’ shelves stocked for months.
A large percentage of livestock and milk products in Ohio eventually find their way to restaurants and schools, the Farm Bureau spokesman said, “and all that product in the blink of an eye had nowhere to go” when statewide stay-at-home orders went into effect. Dairymen took an especially big hit, Higgins said, when grocery stores — fearing a shortage of milk — began to limit the amount consumers could purchase. As a result, some farmers had no choice but to dump their milk down the drain.
The Farm Bureau and other farm organizations, Higgins said, reached out and convinced grocers there was no need to enact limits, and the backlog has begun to ease. On the minds of consumers now, he said, are fears that processing plants across the United States will close as cases of coronavirus spread.
“So far only 7% of the capacity at U.S. processing plants has been affected” by COVID-19, Higgins said. “That means that 93% of the facilities are up and running. The supply (of meat products) is sufficient to keep grocers’ shelves stocked for quite a long time, so long as we all think of buying in moderation.”
One Mercer County agribusiness has been mostly unaffected by the virus because of its specific customer base. More than 3,900 head of cattle are milked daily at MVP Dairy near Neptune.
“Luckily we have not had to dispose of any milk. All of our milk goes to Dannon Yogurt (in Minster) and therefore has a slightly longer shelf life than it would in other markets,” MVP spokesperson Allison Ryan said. “We have not had to adjust our production at all.”
What has changed at MVP, Ryan said, is the attention given to enhanced safety standards.
“We have been taking extra precautions to ensure our workers’ safety,” Ryan said. “We’re wiping down all surfaces frequently and are requiring additional cleaning between shifts.”
Shortages in unexpected areas
Higgins jokingly said freezers will be in short supply if consumers panic. It turns out to be no joke at all.
Jeff Tracy of Tracy’s Appliances in Lima said there currently is not a freezer — chest or upright — to be found.
“We had a big run on freezers starting about two or three weeks ago,” Tracy said. “I deal with eight manufacturers, and none have freezers right now. I was recently able to capture about 12 to 15 of them, and they were gone before they were off the truck.”
Tracy said business at his store has remained strong during the pandemic.
“We were deemed an essential business, and we’ve been able to deliver a lot of stuff like refrigerators to people who really need them right now,” the businessman said. “It’s really a blessing.”