With major meat processing plants around the country closing down, and Tyson Foods warning about interruptions to the nation’s meat supply, local meat lockers are finding themselves busier than ever.

Demand is coming from both farmers who need the lockers to butcher animals they then sell to farm customers, and from customers who buy meat directly from the locker.

“You hear this stuff on the news that there ain’t going to be no meat,” said Scott Klinder, owner of Klinder Processing in Carlos. “It’s a lot busier.”

For local farmers who want to sell their pork or beef for better prices than what they might get at auction, the meat lockers can’t relieve the bottleneck in the meat supply chain. With limited staff and cooler space, they say they are doing what they can, but there’s no way they can match the major meat packers, which can slaughter 20,000 hogs a day.

“I can’t even touch what they’re doing. I’m not even making a dent in that,” said Bonnie Johnson, co-owner of Miltona Custom Meats.

Klinder said farmers who want a hog butchered will have to wait until July to bring them in, while beef customers are already scheduled into 2021.

Normally he would butcher one or two head of cattle in a month, he said, but he just butchered five in one week. There’s a limit, though, on how much work he can take on. The state has offered matching grants for meat lockers to add coolers, he said, but he has no room in his facility to put them.

Johnson too said it’s unlikely her meat locker will expand. It’s all they can do to maintain social distancing in the space she has. She and her husband have run it for 30 years, she said, and they’re not planning to rebuild. They are trying to accommodate their customers with what they have.

“Our butchering has been crazy,” Johnson said. “Our phone won’t stop ringing.”

One farmer who sells pork directly to customers has bumped up the number he wants them to butcher from 20 hogs a week to 40.

“He wants to do more, but we only have seven to 10 employees,” Johnson said.

She too attributes the demand to talk of meat shortages.

Tyson warns of shortage

On Sunday, April 26, Tyson Meats warned in a full-page ad published in several large newspapers that the nation’s food supply chain is “breaking” from having to close its plants because of the coronavirus. It said millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain, and that its products will be in limited supply in grocery stores until it can reopen its meat packing plants.

Some of that shortage is already being felt.

Lockers rely on bigger suppliers for some of what they sell. With the packing plants closed, the lockers can’t get pork trim for making sausage. Jennie Quinn, co-owner of the Evansville Meat Market, said they were unable to find bone-in pork chops for their meat case last week.

Meat prices have been climbing too. Johnson said a pound of hamburger meat is now retailing for $6.50-$7 a pound, up from its pre-coronavirus price of $4.59, because the price she has to pay for the meat has also jumped.

Customers aren’t just buying a few pounds of meat; they want to stock up.

“We’ve never sold this many hogs or quarters and halves at one time,” Johnson said.

Freezer shortage, too

Those who want enough meat to fill a freezer are running into another problem: Finding a freezer. There has been a shortage of those nationally, too.

Jeff Doherty, owner and manager of Cullen’s Furniture in Alexandria, said his store has a list of “hundreds” of names on a waiting list of people who need freezers.

“It’s three to four pages long,” he said.

A freezer shipment was supposed to come in soon, he said, but, “We never know until it gets on the truck and it lands. We’ve been pushed out as far as August on some of my orders which go back to February.”

Daniel Evavold, who runs Evansville Hardware & Sport, which sells large appliances, said his store has refrigerators but no freezers.

“They’ve told us middle of June we might start seeing a freezer,” he said. “I’ve probably talked to four people today who want freezers. I have people calling every day looking for freezers.”

He said he noticed the demand for freezers surge when people began stockpiling groceries at home.

Local demand mixed blessing for farmers

Results of all this demand for locally raised and processed meat have been mixed for the farmers who raise the hogs and cattle.

Matt Macho of Osakis, an electrician who raises hogs as a hobby, said he has picked up some new customers but also lost some. Some are buying full-grown hogs for $50 from larger farmers who would otherwise have to euthanize them because the meat packing plants have closed. He sells his own for $200, so he can’t compete with those prices. Unless they butcher the hogs themselves, though, they, too, have to find a meat locker.

And if they can’t get those animals in right away, they’ll end up having to feed them until a spot opens up, which will likely be months. And feed takes money, too.