SPEARFISH — Local butcher shops are always busy this time of the year, but with closures of the massive food processing plants, such as the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, due to COVID-19 outbreaks, they have become inundated by inquiries and orders.
“We’re getting 50-plus calls a day about hogs,” said Fawn Frost, co-manager of The Butcher Shop in Spearfish. “Now it’s beef because there are beef plants getting shut down.”
Typically in early May, if The Butcher Shop had its processing schedule set into June, managers would be feeling good, Frost said. Now, they are booked into August.
At Integrity Meats in Belle Fourche, part-owner Alana Strickland is seeing the same thing.
“It would be busy. We would keep our books full. But this year it is way busier,” Strickland said. “More people are up front getting individual cuts of meat, and our processing schedule is out till December.”
Normally, they would be scheduled three weeks out.
East River hog farmers were caught flatfooted when Smithfield Foods closed its doors. The massive plant employees 3,700 people and slaughtered up to 20,000 pigs a day. That sudden loss of a processing facility left farmers scrambling, looking for people and other facilities to purchase their harvest-ready animals as smaller pigs needed space already occupied. Word quickly went out and individual people began purchasing the hogs at a discount.
“We started getting calls, ‘can you do 60, 25, 30, 100,” said Rose Kellem, manager of The Butcher Shop.
Frost even had one East River caller ask if the small butcher shop could take on 300 hogs.
While The Butcher Shop can process animals that have already been slaughtered, Integrity Meats can slaughter animals on site. Still, Strickland said the crew of 11 full- and part-time staff members are having a difficult time keeping their retail freezer shelves stocked.
“There are weeks we can get our meat orders filled from our purveyor, and then there are weeks we can’t get anything,” she said.
Kellem said the same thing.
“The shelves, we just have nothing,” she said.
“The amount of burger we make a day on a regular basis. Now, it’s (much more) every day, and we are selling out every day,” Kellem added. “Our personal inventory, our retail inventory, is just wiped out. It’s not like we don’t have time to stock it. It’s just that we don’t have anything to stock.”
She said meat processing plants across the nation are seeing the same effects from the industrial plants closing.
This is also causing the price of meat to swing drastically.
“Our wholesale prices, they’re a rollercoaster,” she said. “For a week they bottomed out. The very next week all the prices were high originally. So our cost right now is what we would normally sell retail at.”
Both said they feel consumers are sourcing their meat locally more than in the past and are stocking up on meat, keeping their home freezers full rather than relying on shopping for the individual meals they are planning that week.
Strickland said she and her husband Larry Strickland are considering adding staff members to their business. Kellem said she would like to as well, but with the passing of her dad Dick Johnson, who ran The Butcher Shop for years, the business has been dealt a double blow – the loss of Dick as well as the necessary hiring of additional employees.
But despite the dramatic increase in demand for processing service, managers of both facilities said they are going to only take in the number of animals that they can handle at any given time.
And in the fall, as hunters check in their deer, elk, and antelope to be cut, both facilities will still be able to processed.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dick Johnson's name.
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