By Carol Stiffler

A local farmer told me last week that people are getting alarmed about meat. Their farm raises cattle, sheep, and chickens, and their meat is already sold out in advance.

“People would buy every animal on my property if I let them,” she said. “They’re panicking.”

With multiple meat packing plants closed across the country and in Canada – some of them are massive – analysts are warning about a meat shortage. It could be lengthy, they say.

Meanwhile the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has teamed up with the state’s beef and pork producers to limit any shortages while increasing worker safety in meat packing plants.

And they’re asking us not to “panic buy” the meat that is currently available.

The American supply chain has become sophisticated enough that goods are often delivered just in advance of when they’re needed. This limits waste and maximizes profit. And it works 99% of the time, as long as crops perform at their average standards.

When a pandemic strikes and people buy in fear, supply chains are broken. Toilet paper supplies were the first noted shortage in this coronavirus pandemic. As people feared they’d be locked at home, they perhaps didn’t realize how much toilet paper they would actually need and they snapped it up. In many grocery stores and in big box stores like Costco, toilet paper supplies were completely exhausted. The supply chain broke – though only temporarily, it was still distressing.

It has since happened with other products, like flour and yeast, as shoppers snatched up available quantities in anticipation of baking their own bread for perhaps the foreseeable future. No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. Yeast disappeared.

Fleishman’s yeast company reports that they are dusting off old equipment and increasing production to get more yeast into stores, but it will still be one or two months before they can get shelves restocked. The yeast supply chain is broken – even in Newberry.

That’s the kind of event Michigan is trying to avoid with meat. If even a small minority of consumers panic and deplete the meat supply, the tenuous chain will break. In the U.K., it took only 6% of shoppers to break the supply chain for toilet paper.

Perhaps in the U.P., we are more well off than other areas, since many of us have venison in our freezers from hunting season. We might catch our own fish. We probably all know several people who raise beef cattle and plenty of us buy a quarter of a cow at a time. But a lot of us rely on grocery stores like Mac’s Market or Rahilly’s IGA for the protein we eat. And if we’re not vegan or vegetarian, we are right to be concerned that meat might be hard to find next time we head to the store.

This is tricky. We have to not only stay calm, but trust that our neighbors will do the same. The supply chain can be broken easier than we’d like to believe.

Perhaps it is time to take an inventory of what we have in the freezer, or to search for ways to reduce our dependence on meat. Take into consideration all of our options – your neighbor who raises livestock, or the availability of chicks at farm stores. Consider buying a turkey and using it to feed your family for days or even a week.

Whatever we do, let’s keep each other in mind. Panic buying increases stress and turns us into competitors. And when we break the food chain, we make it harder for our neighbors to survive.

We live in the kind of community where neighbors care for each other. One of the ways we can do that is by making sure everyone who braves a trip to the store for meat will be able to leave with some.