Erick Turner and Natalie Potts, owners of Butcher Butcher, 30 S. Colville St. in downtown Walla Walla, have seen an increase in demand for their meats.
While national companies have experienced issues through the coronavirus pandemic, including the shutdown of several major processing plants across the country and the rising cost and rationing of meat sales at grocery stores, local suppliers have upped their output to meet the need.
“That’s the beauty of getting meat from local people,” Turner said. “The animals still existed, but the issue was getting a processing facility to slaughter it. Places like Tyson ... had a hard time with 3,000 employees. That’s the beauty of small, local suppliers. They still keep running. Surprisingly, it’s been easy.”
Kenna Fritz, the meat manager at Southgate Center Market, 905 S. Second Ave., has found her customers becoming much more conscious of purchasing local produce.
“I’m getting a lot of questions now,” Fritz said. “A lot more people are asking, ‘Where is the meat coming from?’ The lamb from Upper Dry Creek Ranch? Now we’re selling out of it all the time. Same goes with a lot of produce from local farms. It doesn’t take long for us to sell out of their meats and vegetables.”
Butcher Butcher also gets a lot of its meat from Upper Dry Creek Ranch across the Oregon border in Weston, as well as other regional suppliers — Pure Country Harvest LLC in Moses Lake, Mad Hatcher in Ephrata and 6 Ranch in Enterprise.
“I think they are all doing fine,” Turner said. “Seems like maybe we’re starting to realize we don’t need the industrial meat market. People are starting to go back to getting their meat from a local butcher. A lot of them want to go to back the way things used to be.”
Blue Valley Meats, 1162 W. Pine St., serves as its own supplier, and has seen business boom during the pandemic.
“We’ve been extremely busy,” owner Geoff Forcum said. “Everyone coming in wants to know where their food is coming from. We’re blessed. It’s been amazing.”
This comes after widespread worries of a meat shortage.
“What was happening was the industry, as a whole, had to change a lot of its distribution,” Upper Dry Creek Ranch co-owner Cheryl Cosner said. “For example, the lamb market. Over 50% of our lamb usually has gone to restaurants. When the restaurants had to shut down, and they weren’t placing their orders, you had a lot less meat actually leaving the processing plants.
“It shows how fragile our food system is with the large processing plants.”
Customers at grocery stores might have to deal with limited options for another few months, according to Forcum — this despite national reports of companies exporting record amounts of pork overseas.
“There’s been a lot of things going on, and some misinformation,” Forcum said. “We’re still behind. I think we’re going to see the market have its ups and downs for a while. Not just pork, but beef too. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to catch up to the way things used to be.”
However, widespread health concerns amid the COVID-19 outbreak worked to the advantage of local meat suppliers, Turner said.
“It seems like the perfect storm,” Turner said. “With the larger places shutting down, people no longer trusted meat that had been traveling a long way to get here. I think people are much more self-conscious of what they put in their body — they already were, but now it’s something we’re really thinking about a lot more.
“Now, we want meat that’s hormone- and antibiotic-free. That’s 100% what we do.”
People had to stay home for much of March, April and May as the outbreak forced a statewide quarantine, but Butcher Butcher saw more customers coming into its South Colville Street store.
“It’s been interesting,” Turner said. “We had a dip in wholesales with the restaurants not open, but then here came retail sales. You could call some of it, especially early on, panic buying — like that toilet paper scare. People trying to stock up. Chicken, especially, seems to be a big deal.”
Meanwhile, Turner and Potts had few adjustments to make during the outbreak.
“Aside from wearing masks, nothing has changed,” Turner said. “We already had this place meeting the standards. It’s been fortuitous in that way.”
Cosner says workers at Upper Dry Creek Ranch wear gloves when handling their produce, and masks when making deliveries.
The state guidelines eased toward the end of May with Walla Walla County entering Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start reopening plan, and Turner expects business to continue climbing.
“Now that people can get out a little more, we could see retail drop a bit and wholesale get back up, but we’re also in time for backyard barbecues to be a summer favorite as usual,” Turner said. “I think people are already looking forward to getting back together, even if the parties still have to be small for now.”
Meanwhile, Upper Dry Creek Ranch has shifted much of its business to online orders after COVID-19 shut down much of the local economy.
“We’ve had to make a big pivot with our distribution,” Cosner said. “We used to almost completely rely on restaurants and schools. When (COVID-19) came down, that went away. Only about 10% of our business had been direct-to-customer so we had to totally pivot. We said it on Facebook, just that we were thinking about it, and right away that got a lot of attention.”
Upper Dry Creek Ranch will continue sending meat to restaurants in Walla Walla, including Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, Passatempo Taverna and Public House 124, as well as Bon Appetit at Whitman College.
However, the ranch now welcomes everyone to place their own direct orders.
Its website still under construction, Upper Dry Creek Ranch added a Shop Now button to its Facebook page mid-May.
Orders are delivered to one of two dropoff points in Walla Walla.
“We did a soft opening about three weeks ago, just an e-mail notification to people who have purchased from us in the past,” Cosner said mid-June. “It was conservative. I know people who start shipping products, but get overwhelmed. I don’t expect us to have that problem. We’re taking on new customers, and we’re making sure we have everything in place.”