MOSCA — Sheldon Rockey weaves through pallets of potatoes in a long-retired high school gym as a small team of workers wash and package his trademarked fingerlings.
“We just weren’t prepared for this, so there will be some livestock that will eat some gourmet potatoes this year,” says Rockey, who saw his innovative and competitive strategy of selling tiny high-end potatoes to a wholesaler supplying cruise ships and restaurants collapse in mid-March as the pandemic settled in the U.S.
Selling fancy spuds was a good plan and one of many innovative business and marketing strategies Rockey and his brother Brendon have deployed for years at their family’s Rockey Farms in the San Luis Valley.
When the threat of COVID-19 shuttered restaurants around the country, Rockey leaned on his family’s long history of swift maneuvering to keep his potato business afloat. They sent their gourmet tubers to food banks and the Navajo Nation. They scrambled for packaging to meet a soaring demand from grocers. They joined an army of farmers and ranchers across the country who are reshaping their industry after a historic collapse of supply chains and processing in the pandemic.
“Thinking outside the box is something my family has done for a long, long time,” says Rockey, climbing the optical potato sorter in the rafters of the gym-turned-warehouse. “It’s the only way we can survive in this industry.”
The ripple effect of the pandemic’s food supply upheaval started with idled restaurants and moved to meat-processing plants and quickly rolled down to the farmers and ranchers who produce our food.
Those in-the-field food producers have reacted to the disruption with innovative strategies and outreach that could transform their industries. Ranchers are developing their own brands and connecting directly with consumers. Farmers are working with ranchers to share land. Consumers are rallying around locally produced food, even as grocery shelves recover from the frenzied stockpiling of the early pandemic.
This union of Western ranchers, farmers and consumers harkens to an age before consolidation and middlemen, when meat and vegetables landed mostly on local supper tables. The confluence of collapsing supply chains, technologically savvy producers and consumers, and a need for innovation in getting food to families has sparked a shift in the agricultural community that many hope remains beyond the pandemic.
“I think it has been such an unfortunate event for our planet, but out of the ashes have come these beautiful sprouts of hope and resilience for how things can be,” says Holly Zink, who has seen an increase of new customers at her Sunnyside Farms Market and Sunnyside Meats packing plant in Durango.
For Zink, the catastrophic impact of the pandemic has exposed a fundamental truth she has espoused for years: As agricultural processes become increasingly centralized, they also become exponentially more fragile.
Farmers, ranchers getting back together in the field
The Western Landowners Association, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable stewardship of grazing lands in 11 states, is working with hundreds of its members to help keep lands viable for cattle.
“Good open ranch land is better habitat than subdivisions, regardless of how it’s managed,” says Louis Wertz, the association’s spokesman.
Part of that effort is a partnership with the Good Meat Project, which is weaving together a first-of-its-kind network of ranchers, processors and chefs and connecting them with consumers through an innovative online dashboard.
“The idea is how can we make it as easy as possible for consumers to find other ways to get food from their local markets and producers,” says the project’s executive director Camas Davis. “I think consumers are searching for that more than ever before and my hope is that it will remain that way.”
The Good Meat Project is seeing an influx of consumers eager to buy directly from livestock producers.
“We don’t know if that increase in consumer demand is going to go down after the pandemic is over or maybe if it’s shifting consumer perspectives,” Davis says. “This increase in demand has also exposed the weaknesses in the meat economy … especially for businesses working in the commodity market that still faces bottlenecks in processing and a supply-chain challenge.”
The nation’s limited number of small meat-processing facilities is unable to fill the hole left when major processing plants shut down. The system is not built to handle that level of disruption, with the several stages of cattle production involving specialized players and processes.
The shutdown of the big plants has left ranchers with a backlog of animals they are paying to raise to maturity when they usually have sent those animals to stockers and feeders who raise cows for slaughter.
One solution the landowners association is pursuing connects ranchers with farmers who could plant winter cover crops for grazing cattle.
“But reintroducing livestock into farming, that level of flexibility is not around. We have sort of specialized it out of the system,” Wertz says.
Davis is seeing restaurants adapting by buying animals and butchering their own cuts for both in-house diners and shoppers cooking at home. If they are not serving as many people in their dining rooms, they can adapt to the market by working with local health officials to allow them to buy whole animals and sell meat out of their kitchens.
“They are looking at getting onto tables in a different way rather than getting food onto their own restaurant’s tables,” says Davis, who thinks a lingering impact of this pandemic could be policy shifts that allow that kind of meat distribution. “Because it’s so clear that the centralized food processing system is so fragile, especially in a pandemic, we may see policy changes toward supporting more small production facilities.”
Davis points to a March amendment to Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act that lets residents make and sell any type of homemade food, including perishable items, but not meat. It’s the most permissive homemade food law in the country. In April, Wyoming lawmakers unanimously approved new bills expanding the state’s food freedom law to meat. The new laws also let ranchers sell shares of their herds, so all the animals are collectively owned by consumers who are allowed, under federal law, to custom slaughter their animals at local butchers, not federally-certified facilities.
“It seems like a small detail, but it really opens up a lot of opportunities,” Davis says.
Producers aren’t used to having a public face
The shifting landscapes for farmers and ranchers means they need a more public face. Without deliveries to middlemen, wholesalers and restaurants, the food producers need to delve into the foreign world of marketing. They need a brand. They need packaging. They need to appeal directly to consumers. And they are doing that.
Wertz thinks those changes will last. He’s seeing the ranchers who already know how to market sharing their expertise with livestock producers new to the world of marketing and selling.
“We have a lot of members working in the direct-to-consumer channel now and they are making their whole tool kits available to producers who are new to that,” Wertz says. “It’s work to learn that stuff and open an online shop and market to the local community but I think these will be durable and lasting changes for producers.”
The growing partnership between the landowners association and the Good Meat Project recently hosted a Zoom meeting with more than 100 cattle producers across the West, all working to sell directly to consumers. That one meeting identified farmers who could take cattle for grass grazing before slaughter, shared local production facilities and created outlets to better reach consumers.
“The energy in that call is helping to shift the meat economy,” Davis says. “I think there is going to be that kind of collective turning of ideas and attention toward new markets that can be built up in a different way.”
Jen Livsey’s family has been raising cattle on their Flying Diamond Ranch in Cheyenne County near Kit Carson for five generations. The commercial cow and calf operation mostly works in the commodity market, sending her cattle to a feed lot to be fattened and then to a large processor like Greeley’s JBS. She ramped up direct-to-consumer sales this year as traditional supply chains for cattle collapsed.
“We love to tell our story and connect directly with consumers and we see this time as a huge opportunity for that,” Livsey says.
But it’s not like selling 10 head of cattle directly to families will replace her sales on the larger commodity market. Families who buy direct need a lot of freezer space and they pay quite a bit more than they would pay at the grocery store.
“It’s kind of like having an Etsy shop,” Livsey says of selling directly to consumers. “It’s cute but it’s not really going to change the system.”
A bigger innovation to come out of this pandemic, Livsey says, will be the coming together of farmers and ranchers.
A half century ago, farmers growing crops and ranchers raising cattle worked together, but that changed as the markets splintered and became more specialized. Livsey’s family started winter grazing their cattle on corn stalks at a farm in western Kansas following the drought in 2011, and now that shift is part of their annual operation. Farmers welcoming cattle on their fields harkens to the pre-industrialized era of agriculture before mass production.
Farmers get their land naturally tilled and fertilized by the cows as they alternate grazing-friendly ground cover between rounds of cash crops. Ranchers get to rest their grassland for a season when they ship their cows and calves to farmland.
“I think it is really positive for land health to reintegrate livestock and farming systems,” Livsey says. “It’s really benefited our family and I’m glad we are seeing more of it. That’s a very positive thing that might come out of this.”
Marketers with local connections restocked — fast
When the local grocery shelves at City Market and Walmart started emptying in March, Zink called the ranchers and farmers who stock her Sunnyside Farms Market in Durango. Her coolers at the craft butcher shop were laden with local beef and pork, milk from Olathe and flour and beans from Dove Creek.
“We have a very secure source for providing those things,” says Zink, who began corralling local ranchers and farmers for her market and meat packing plant in 2002.
When processing plants started shutting down in the Midwest and grocery shelves were going bare, she was able to step up, and the butchers at her meat packing plant are now processing cows from north Texas to southern Wyoming, well beyond her stable of local ranchers.
“We are serving new customers every day. This has given us an opportunity to get people out of a routine they have,” says Zink, whose farmland south of Durango has been in her family since the 1890s.
Zink hopes the trend toward local meat and produce continues as the pandemic fades. But that will require Americans to grow more comfortable with higher prices for their food, she says. She sees signs of more consumers interested in locally produced food and supporting a more diverse food supply.
“They are looking outside their traditional habits and patterns and I think one of the great things about having a real craft butcher shop, like grandma used to go to, are the relationships we form with our customers,” Zink says. “Maybe they say, ‘Hey, I like this a lot better and I’m going to go outside my pattern.’”
A diverse product line helps, too
Eight years ago Brendon and Sheldon Rockey merged their family’s 250-acre Rockey Farm in the San Luis Valley with neighboring White Mountain Farms to create the White Rock Specialities packaging and shipping operation in Mosca.
The innovative brothers have spent their lives pulling their potato farm not forward, but back into the practices of their grandfather when he first began farming the land in 1938.
They have won awards for their back-to-basics approach to farming seed and speciality potatoes. They plant water-efficient ground cover that lures beneficial insects and improves soil health. They work with ranchers to bring in cattle in the winter that naturally aerate and fertilize the soil as they graze.
They keep a rotation of different potatoes and vegetables growing. Quinoa grown by their partners at White Farms adds diversity to their produce portfolio.
The deal with White Farms allowed the company to move into the old Mosca High School, where they have an optical sorter in the gym that speeds the washing and packaging of organic potatoes harvested from a select collective of farmers working 1,500 acres of Colorado land.
For a relatively small potato operation, they compete well in a tuber industry dominated by heavyweights that thrive on french fry demand. And when demand for restaurant-consumed french fries disappeared in March, North America’s potato farmers faced a record glut of spuds. Millions of young plants were plowed under and growers cut next season’s planting by as much as 30%.
But the Rockeys don’t work in the french-fry business.
The Rockey brothers had it good, packaging unlabeled 50-pound boxes of their high-quality fingerlings for cruise-ship chefs as part of a 20-year deal with a wholesale distributor out of New Jersey. They never went a season when they didn’t sell every mini-tuber they harvested. Then came the collapse.
“I’ll never forget the Friday the 13th that came in March,” Rockey says. “That was the last day we shipped our fingerlings.”
Demand for their gourmet potatoes went to zero when restaurants closed and cruise ships were evacuated, while grocery stores started tripling their orders for russets, reds and yellow potatoes. They had the potatoes to help meet the retail demand, but they didn’t have the UPC-coded, nutrition-labeled, flashy-branded bags needed to sell in a grocery. They didn’t even have those types of bags for their fingerlings.
“Sure we are stuck with lots of fingerlings, but we have had success on the other side because of the way people are shopping now,” says Rockey, looking over a skeleton team of packers preparing some of the first shipments of his fancy tubers in more than two months. “We really hope our old customers come back this fall.”
Potato farmers had options that other produce growers and ranchers didn’t have, thanks to the shelf-life of their product. Their products didn’t rot while they shifted from wholesale to retail. Leftovers were easily funneled to local communities. Food banks always have potatoes.
Rockey says it’s too early to talk about lessons for his own crops he might glean from the shutdown in traditional processes and supply chains. But he’s got some ideas. He’s printing up bags to sell everything he processes in retail shops, just in case the restaurant scene crumples again. He’s glad he has a network of ranchers who can graze their cattle on his farmland, giving it a chance to recover without costly interventions, like fertilizing. He’s recognizing the value of early decisions his family made to be diverse, with a host of different potatoes and produce.
“You just can’t have all your eggs in one basket in this business. That’s definitely more obvious than it ever was before,” Rockey says.
Kate Kavanaugh said business at her Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver’s Northside has grown substantially in the past two months as people explore different options for purchasing meat.
She worked with a local rancher to sell shares of his cattle — which he raised to sell wholesale to restaurants — to dozens of individual buyers. Her team at Western Daughters — a whole-animal butcher shop — has begun delivering local beef, chicken and pork. Her team spent 10 days building a new walk-in refrigerator at the LoHi shop on Tejon Street. She hired idled workers from nearby restaurants to handle the demand.
“We are ramping up every aspect of our business,” says Kavanaugh, who opened Western Daughters with co-owner Josh Curtiss in 2013 as a way to better connect local farmers and ranchers with buyers. “Small processors are at the heart of how meat is distributed across the country but capacity is just too low. We need more of them around the country.”
Most small processors can’t just nimbly absorb this sudden surge in demand for locally-sourced meat. She was lucky, she says, to have the funding and ability to ramp up so quickly. The wave of new customers gave her a glimpse of what the future could be.
“We got to see what it would take for us to be successful and profitable as a butcher shop,” she says. “We need that much more volume for us to be sustainable. We are really going to depend on our community and people seeking us out to sustain this.”
Kavanaugh says the biggest take-away from the pandemic-driven chaos in the national meat and produce supply chain is a peek behind the curtain of industrial agriculture and centralized food distribution.
“Such a rare transparency we have right now. And when people see how their food is moving from farm to table, they ask themselves if they want to participate in the conventional system or participate in a local system,” Kavanaugh says. “To see how ranchers and farmers and consumers have stepped up to meet this new opportunity, it’s a pivotal and magical moment for local food.”