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A cut above: Kentucky’s strong meat industry

Kentucky’s meat industry faces latest challenge amid pandemic

Jenny Pennington stocks a freezer with local meat for sale. Photo: Tim Webb
Pennington Farm Meats & More raises beef cattle and sells it. Photo: Tim Webb
Photo: Tim Webb
Jenny and Lee Pennington, owners of Pennington Farm Meats & More. Photo: Tim Webb
Photo: Tim Webb
Appalachian Meats in West Liberty is a USDA certified meat processor. Photo: Tim Webb
Cattle raised at Pennington Farm are processed at this facility. Photo: Tim Webb

Thanks to Colonel Sanders, chicken is probably the meat that’s most closely associated with Kentucky around the world. 

While, yes, poultry and eggs are the state’s No. 1 agricultural commodity, it’s worth noting that Kentucky also produces more beef cows than any state east of the Mississippi River. 

The state even produces its share of pork, turkey, and enough sheep and goats that the farmers who raise those animals get support from (we kid you not—pun intended) the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office. 

Kentucky’s meat industry—like all others—has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has heightened the anxieties of meat producers, sellers and consumers while also reminding them what they loved about meat in the first place. 

Panic buying and comfort food 

The work of those who provide meat from the farm has been in high demand since the pandemic generated media stories about panicky shoppers emptying grocery store meat cases. 

Matt McNally is meat manager for Off the Hoof, a western Kentucky meat market/deli with locations in Draffenville, Murray and Mayfield. McNally, a Western Kentucky RECC consumer-member, says his business has seen a huge jump in demand for all their offerings–beef, pork, chicken and lamb. “I guess everybody’s panic buying,” he says. “Business has been really good. It’s hard to keep up.”

Nathan Lawson, director of the Kentucky Beef Council, says one key turning point for Kentucky’s meat producers came on March 16 when Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order requiring restaurants to close their dining rooms.

“Seemingly overnight, Kentucky consumers were forced to dramatically change their food purchasing habits,” says Lawson, a farmer whose family runs Lawson Farms and Big Springs Beef in Bloomfield. As a result, he says, “There has been a considerable increase in purchases of beef from farms who market directly to consumers. When the meat cases emptied, consumers realized there was another option—buying from their local beef producer.”

In Morehead, Jenny Pennington has experienced that trend firsthand as she and her husband, Lee, operate Pennington Farm Meats & More. “Business was great before (the pandemic),” she says. “Now, it’s almost overwhelming.” The Penningtons, who are consumer-members of Fleming-Mason Energy, have seen increased demand for beef and pork. They even had to limit customers to no more than three pounds of ground beef per visit. Seeing so many customers turn to Pennington Farm Meats & More has reminded her of what she’s always loved about the business.

Pennington Farm, which participates in the Kentucky Proud program, keeps 90-100 head of cattle and sells bacon and sausage from locally raised hogs, among other meats. Their animals are raised and processed without hormones, antibiotics or preservatives. “We work seven days a week. That’s just part of it,” Pennington says, adding the satisfaction comes from “feeding my community, feeding people good, healthy meat.” 

Changes and challenges 

Lawson says while COVID-19 has driven up demand for beef right now, it’s also led to market uncertainty for the future. As a result, “Within a week we lost nearly 30% of the value of our cattle. Imagine waking up to the reality that 30% of the value of your livelihood just evaporated—it’s heartbreaking.”

An unpredictable marketplace exacerbated by COVID-19 is just one of the challenges Kentucky’s smaller farms and meat producers face. Labor shortages are common. There are widespread concerns about consolidation within the meat industry. Giants like Walmart Inc. and Kroger dominate the food retail marketplace; as a result, smaller producers sometimes struggle to find a United States Department of Agriculture-certified meat processor, a requirement for selling meat in packaged chunks. Pennington Farm contracts with Appalachian Meats in West Liberty, owned by Marlin Gerber. Gerber says he’s been exceptionally busy during the pandemic. Off the Hoof works with Hampton Meats in Hopkinsville.

Another challenge is the limited number of young people who are interested in taking over family farms. Jenny Pennington says her two grown daughters have other careers in mind. When she and her husband can no longer manage the farm and the store, she says, “We’ll just close it up or try to sell it. It makes me sad.” 

The website Ag Daily wrote in November 2018, “Right now, more jobs are available than are being filled in agriculture. Between 2015 and 2020, about 35,400 U.S. students will graduate with degrees and expertise in agriculture, food, renewable natural resources, or the environment, expected to fill just over half of the anticipated available jobs in those fields.”

Marlee Kelley, 23, who was scheduled to receive her master’s degree in meat science this spring from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is filling one of those agriculture jobs. A Florida native, Kelley says, “I grew up hunting and fishing. Processing meat wasn’t foreign to me like it is to some people.”  

Kelley is a veteran of intercollegiate meat-judging, a competition in which students might spend hours in a freezer assigning intricate quality grades to hunks of frozen beef, pork and lamb. 

Today, she’s an agriculture and natural resources agent at the Bullitt County Cooperative Extension Office and says she enjoys the job. “I love working with farmers, especially cattle farmers. Talking to them. Seeing their operations, seeing how they need help,” she says. Another job plus is education, she adds: “I want people to know where their food comes from.” 

Lawson says part of what drives farmers and ranchers is the essential role they serve in the process that generates the food that feeds Kentucky and America, especially in uncertain times. 

“It’s hard to know where things are headed,” he says. “Businesses of all types are suffering, and there will be some that don’t survive. During times like this, I have to remind myself, people need food, we grow their food.”


Juicy judging 

Intrigued by the notion that there is such thing as competitive meat judging? Learn about the University of Kentucky’s competitive Meats Judging Team.

More meat

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also maintains a searchable listing of producers of meat and other products under the Kentucky Proud label.

Eatwild, an organization that promotes grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products, has a list of Kentucky farms that meet its criteria.

TRY THIS! Grilled Teriyaki Beef Kabobs

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