Will Harris has been alarmed by news reports of farmers euthanizing their animals because slaughterhouses and processing plants, shut down after coronavirus outbreaks, can’t take them. Such pointless death, Harris said, would never happen at White Oak Pastures, where he and his 160 employees raise the animals, slaughter the animals and sell beef, pork, chicken and other products from a zero-waste farm in the tiny town of Bluffton, Ga.
“If I couldn’t slaughter my pigs or chickens or cows for a day or a month, or a week or a year, they’d all be doing fine,” Harris said in a phone interview. “They’d just keep on living” on the farm.
This is one of the many differences between small, holistic farms such as White Oak and large, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which supply most of the meat to American consumers. The commodity meat supply chain was designed to be efficient, fast and cheap. It wasn’t designed to be resilient to shocks, such as a pandemic, Harris said. So when slaughterhouses and processing plants had to shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks, or were slowed down because of absenteeism and the requirements of social distancing, the feedlots and CAFOs had nowhere to keep their animals for the duration. The system had to keep moving. So millions of animals have been euthanized.
“I think efficiency and resilience are almost mutually exclusive of each other. The more you strive for efficiency, the less you’ll have resilience,” Harris said. At White Oak, he says, they slaughter 25 head of cattle a day, each one by hand, without mechanization. “A big plant will slaughter 400 head per hour,” Harris added. “It is very, very different.”
When America’s industrial meat supply chain started to break down, consumers and retailers alike ran into shortages of ground beef, chicken breasts and other cuts. They also encountered higher prices. Some retailers started to limit meat purchases to keep supply available.
Given the recent news and shortages, it’s not surprising that White Oak and other Internet retailers, or just farms with online shops, have seen their consumer sales rise dramatically, which in turn has forced them to adapt their operations. Ariane Daguin, founder and owner of the specialty foods company D’Artagnan, says her e-commerce sales are up about 500 percent since the outbreak of coronavirus. But the increase, she said, still hasn’t made up for the loss of her restaurant sales, which had comprised 75 percent of her business. The company’s pivot has required workers to assume new duties, such as order fulfillment for home consumers who want individual cuts of meat, unlike chefs who demand primal cuts that can be butchered in the kitchen.
D’Artagnan is “the musketeer team, you know,” Daguin said, referencing the swashbuckling character after whom she named her company. “All for one, one for all. Everybody adapted to a new job description. It was pretty amazing. We all understand that we have the same goal: to keep the company whole, so we can keep our job.”
Both Daguin and Harris say their companies have the capacity to meet increased consumer demand, provided the consumer is willing to pay the higher prices associated with products of a higher pedigree. Small farms such as White Oak don’t benefit from economies of scale, Harris noted. You’ll pay more for agricultural products that come from farms that treat their animals, their pastures and their workers well.
“The consumer chose to have this system that produces wasteful quantities of obscenely cheap food that is boringly consistent,” Harris said of large-scale animal agriculture.
Consumers who want to change that system can start by buying fresh meats, sausages and other products from the following companies, which were recommended by chefs, farmers and Washington Post readers. (Note: Some serve limited geographical areas. This list will be updated.)
4PFoods: Every week, the company delivers products from farms in the D.C.-area foodshed, including a share of locally sourced, humanely raised meats and eggs.
Alexandre Family Farm: This California farm specializes in organic milk and eggs but also sells grass-fed beef and pastured pork.
Allen Brothers: The esteemed purveyor, a major source of meat for steakhouses around the country, also sells products to consumers, including prime, Wagyu, grass-fed and dry-aged beef.
Benton’s: Allan Benton, known as the Bacon God to chefs around America, sells not just world-class bacon but also whole smoked and unsmoked country hams.
D’Artagnan: The 35-year-old company works with small farms and cooperatives to source its many products, including grass-fed beef, heritage pork and organic chicken.
Farm Foods: The California company sells grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and heritage pork cuts.
Gunthorp Farms: The Indiana-based operation raises its animals on pasture and processes them at an on-site facility. The farm specializes in chicken, pork, duck and turkey products.
Liberty Delight Farms: The Maryland operation sells meats from animals raised on pasture without any antibiotics or hormones. They service only the Maryland, Washington and Virginia areas.
Lobel’s: The sixth-generation butcher shop in New York has been selling meats online for two decades now. You can order prime beef, American Wagyu, all-natural lamb, Berkshire pork and more.
MeatCrafters: The Maryland-based company specializes in cured meats but also sells chorizo, lamb sausages, Italian sausages and half-smokes, the D.C. favorite.
Nourished by Nature: Nourished by Nature is the online storefront for Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota, where the animals graze on pasture and are part of a holistic approach to regenerate soil. The storefront sells beef, lamb, pork and chicken.
North Mountain Pastures: The small Pennsylvania farm raises animals on pasture or in managed woodlots with non-GMO grain. The farm sells CSA meat shares, sausages, bacon and more.
Porter Road: The Nashville-based business works with small farmers to source quality, humanely raised meats, which the crew hand-cuts into steaks, chops, briskets and more.
Red Apron Butcher: This D.C.-based butcher shop is dedicated to local farms that raise their animals humanely and without antibiotics or hormones. The shop has limited delivery around the D.C. area, as well as a new CSA-style butcher’s box available for pickup at eight locations.
Savage Steaks: Once a week, the company promises to deliver USDA prime, dry-aged steaks to your door, but only if you live without a 50-mile radius of its Zip code in Silver Spring, Md.
Seven Sons Farms: The farm is located in Indiana, and, yes, there are seven sons involved. The online shop sells grass-fed beef and bison, pasture-raised pork and much more.
Snake River Farms: Snake River is part of a family-run business that promotes sustainable agriculture and animal welfare. It sells USDA prime steaks and cuts of American Wagyu beef, among other products.
White Oak Pastures: This family farm sells perhaps the widest variety of meats anywhere. You can order beef, goat, lamb, pork, rabbit, goose, duck, chicken and more, all grass-fed or pasture-raised.
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