On March 17, it was still winter in Carlton, Minnesota. Snow sat on Yker Acres’ fields, where the cows had been calving. Inside the barns, new piglets clamored over their mothers’ teets, jockeying for position under heat lamps. It’s an expensive time of year, with all that bedding and electricity and the $2,000 a week it costs to feed pigs indoors. It’s also a lean time; on the North Shore of Lake Superior, it’s shoulder season, when restaurants go on vacation. So there hadn’t been much cash coming in. Good thing spring was around the corner. Matt and Sara Weik (pictured above with their son, Josey) had been busy prepping pasture-raised pork and beef for chefs anticipating their re-openings.
Those re-openings wouldn’t come. March 17 was the day that Governor Tim Walz ordered restaurants and bars across Minnesota to close in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19. At Yker Acres, the news hit hard. Orders were cancelled en masse. It was an instantaneous 80-percent loss in sales.
Located half an hour southwest of Duluth, Yker Acres is a farm that garners name checks on restaurant menus in Duluth, Grand Marais, and the Twin Cities. Fed a barley-rich diet, the Weiks’ cross-bred pigs—a mix of Tamworth, Little Blacks, and Mangalitsa—produce well-marbled, tender pork. Chefs rave about the farmers’ loving care for animals that they raise to be happy.
“We call it letting a pig be a pig,” says Weik, who started raising the animals a decade ago. “They run around, dig in the ground, buck, bark, hip check each other.” “The excitement you see in a pig when they get turned out into a new pasture, or when a fresh bale of hay is dropped into a pen, or a neighbors’ root cellar goes bad and there are unlimited carrots—that’s a really rewarding piece of farming. We strive to make sure the pigs have just ten seconds of their life that isn’t good at the very end.”
The USDA facility where his pigs are processed is on a small family farm just a short drive down a gravel road from Yker Acres. That’s one reason small meat farmers like him are so important now. Larger slaughterhouses, where many employees work elbow to elbow, have been forced to close against the rising tide of the contagion. One gargantuan pork plant owned by Smithfield Foods, was tied to 38 percent of coronavirus cases in South Dakota. Now that it and other huge facilities are shuttering, there’s a possible pork shortage on the horizon.
Smaller farmers, in contrast, primarily process their animals at local, on-farm, or mobile facilities where the risk factors are substantially lower. The Weiks’ processor has just three employees and little potential for spreading the virus. As supermarket butchers see a run on their meat departments, and word comes of an uptick in sales of mass-produced canned products like Chef Boyardi, small farmers like the Weiks offer healthy, sustainable, secure supplies of meat—if they can get word out to the public.
With restaurants cut out of the picture, the shutdowns left the Weiks scrambling to sell their meat directly to consumers. “Overnight, we created a shopping cart on our website. We’re pushing online sales. We either need a benefactor to come in and say, ‘Your farm is really awesome and unique, and we want to save you,’ or we need to sell a lot of boxes.” It’s a radical shift, but he figures it’s for the long run. “Our biggest concern is: What restaurants are going to survive? When this is over, for us to plan to pick up all our wholesale accounts is naive.”
It’s the same everywhere for the boutique meat farmers that chefs have lauded. With human and animal mouths to feed, they must revamp their business models and turn on a dime. All of a sudden, they’re driving meats to consumers’ doorsteps; they’re taking virtual crash-courses in shipping and packing and internet sales; they’re figuring out which farmers they can partner with to make their online offerings more robust; they’re experimenting with social media to advertise their products to the public. It’s impossible to find the time to do all that when you have a farm to run, but they have no choice but to do the impossible.
“My head is packed with information,” says Weik. “This is more exhausting than our normal life. I should be planting cover crops and bailing hay, getting equipment ready for manure, changing the fluids in the tractor, and I’m doing none of that now. I’m behind the eight-ball.”
It’s easy to understand why a farmer with a premium product like Weik’s would want to sell exclusively to restaurants. Trent Sparrow and his wife Jackie raise goats, sheep, and pigs at Illinois’ Catalpa Grove Farm. They used to sell at farmers’ markets, but they stopped. “If it rained, sales were bad. If it was cold, sales were bad. If it was hot, sales were bad. Produce and flowers do well at farmers markets. Frozen meat did fair on a good day,” Sparrow says. With their regular bulk orders, restaurants are just a surer thing. And as weekly deliveries to Chicagoland restaurants like The Gage and Superkhana International increased for the Sparrows, “there were not enough hours of the day” for them to sell elsewhere.
“Now we’re running at ten percent of our previous gross,” says Sparrow. “Will I be able to make it up with retail? Maybe if I started eight months ago. There’s no way I’m going to build clientele fast enough to make up revenue.”
Sparrow is looking toward government grants to stay afloat, but with the USDA yet to sort out how it will spend the $23.5 billion allocated in the CARES Act to support farmers, the clock is winding down on the month or two of cushion he has. How will he continue to afford the approximately $1,500 a day it costs to run his farm? “Get rid of animals, start selling equipment, get a job off farm, and hopefully make the ground payments so I don’t lose the property,” he says.
Not everybody is in that position. Farmers who already had online stores have seen them mobbed by customers stocking up on supplies emptied from grocery shelves. Beth Whiting and her husband Bruce have long sold Maple Wind Farm grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork, chicken, and turkey to Vermont restaurants and at the Burlington Farmers Market; both avenues are closed now. But they launched web sales for pick-up orders a year ago, and they had recently added home deliveries when the coronavirus crisis hit. “We’ve had a good customer base buying direct, but it has increased many times now because they told their neighbors,” Whiting says. Along with these and some big wholesale clients—University of Vermont Hospital; the online butcher Walden Local Meats—sales have increased. It’s going so well that the Whitings have offered their web store as a platform for other local farmers. And they’ll soon start shipping throughout New England. For the health of their business, says Whiting, “diversification is the key.”
Some small farms seem designed for this moment. Rafael Aponte raises goats at Rocky Acres Community Farm in Ithaca, New York, where he also has laying hens and vegetable plots. Aponte, who’s from the South Bronx, is a graduate of the activist Farm School NYC. For him, farming is social justice work; it’s about community resilience and equity. He keeps goats for the sake of his Caribbean, Central American, and West African diaspora customers, he says, because “it’s really hard to get culturally sensitive meat up here.” He’s always done home deliveries, including to senior housing, because he knows that there are customers with financial and physical barriers to mobility.
This time of year, he’s usually welcoming school groups to the farm to teach them about local food systems and lead them in breaking ground on his vegetable garden. The educational component is a quarter of his income, and he’s lost that for now to Covid-19. But working with a local food hub and grassroots partners like the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Aponte is busier than ever making deliveries. “I have just gone into rapid-response mode. I will help any producer get their food out to people in the community who don’t have the ability to get it right now,” he says. “There’s been a huge increase in demand. People want more local food, and I’m trying to meet that demand.”
The Weiks host farm dinners and donate product for local causes. They’re a major part of the growth of the farm-to-table scene in Duluth. Like Aponte, they believe deeply in community. To that end, they’d teamed up with a chef, Hans Bjorklund, and the butcher Brian Merkel to roll out a Yker Acres food truck at Duluth-area events last summer. They’re also testing a consumer-facing meat club—slowly. “I wanted to design a perfect system before the club blew up,” says Merkel, who came to Duluth after working at such famed shops as Dickson’s Farmstand in Manhattan and Bel Campo in San Francisco.
The virus blew up instead. Now the food truck is mothballed for the duration of the shutdowns; the Weiks don’t want to compete against hurting restaurants. And that meat club? It’s almost all they’ve got. With Merkel and Bjorklund's help, Yker Acres is offering one-off and subscription pork boxes for no-cost, no-contact home delivery: three pounds of fresh pork—rib chops, tenderloin; three kinds of sausage, like the bockwurst Merkel had made for a brewery festival that was cancelled, or Northern Minnesota-style potato sausage; three types of bacon from the belly, shoulder, jowl, or loin; and three of Bjorklund's prepared items—liver paté, pulled pork, capicola, or “comforting, nostalgic foods,” as Merkel describes them, such as pork-broth bisque, or a regional slow-cooker favorite called Iron Range porketta.
Weik is driving boxes up the North Shore, another butcher friend is picking them up for the Twin Cities, and Merkel’s been running deliveries in Duluth. “I’ve been outsourcing data entry to my mom, organizing spreadsheets by zip code, building maps,” Merkel says. “The other day, I delivered with my wife and three-month-old and two-year-old in the car. It was 50 percent fun and 50 percent crying and screaming.”
How’s it going? “We sold 70 boxes the first week,” Weik says, and it’s slowly increasing. “That’s not earth-shattering, but it helped us move stuff. I can’t pay all the bills, but I can pay for feed and processing.”
He’s hoping to ramp up partnerships and add microgreens from a local grower and eggs from a neighbor who also lost their restaurant clients. He wants Bjorklund to develop a box of just ready-to-eats—cooked taco meat, pulled pork, deli slices—for parents who are cooking in place of school lunches. “And we’re going to start shipping. We’ve got packaging materials coming, cornstarch-based that dissolve with water. It’s important to make sure we’re being as ecological as possible,” says Weik. “We need to be selling 100 to 125 boxes a week. That would help us keep the farm moving forward.”
And move forward they intend to, one way or another. “Our farm is about so much more than making a living. It’s about animal welfare and being able to provide well-raised meat that people can trust has been treated correctly, doesn’t have toxic hormones or pesticides, and is a clean source of essential proteins and fats,” says Weik. “If it was just about a wage, we would have quit a long time ago because for the amount of time, effort, and turmoil we’ve gone through, we could be doing something else.”