While the last year has taken a toll on many Americans, our nation’s supply chain took a huge hit. While several sectors are in need of assistance, the meat producers and processors were especially hit hard. As of 2017, pork was the third-largest meat product raised in the US, just shy of beef in second-place with 26.3 billion pounds. Indiana is among the top pork producers nationwide and saw its industry drastically unprepared to deal with increased demand as a result of lockdowns. Thankfully, a provision from last year’s CARES Act is taking steps to address this.
The Indiana Meat Processing Expansion and Development Grant Program provision gave roughly $4 million in federal funding to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture for use in assisting state meat suppliers with ramping up their production to account for this increased need. While the funding was limited to $4 million, the grants function as a 50 percent match, meaning millions more were invested as a result. The program is exclusively reserved for small businesses with under 500 employees, and eligible businesses must display how they were impacted by the pandemic. Of the applicants, a total of 41 Indiana businesses were awarded funding, with a maximum award of $150,000 per business.
The bulk of the funding was to help these smaller, often family-run operations keep up with a level of demand that they previously did not have the infrastructure to support. “Before the grant process we were doing 10-11 cattle a week and 10-11 hogs a week,” says Roger Stahlhut, who owns Integrity Meats along with friend Terry Yarde. Without increasing manpower, Integrity’s production was now expected to produce and process 15 of each animal per week, a 50 percent increase. For years prior to the pandemic, Stahlhut and Yarde had been on the search for more advanced equipment that would boost production.
What the two quickly found out, however, is that banks and other lending institutions lacked a willingness to give loans for the bacon slicers that Integrity’s pork-heavy operation required, as they were single-use machines. The pandemic, for all the damage it caused, provided businesses like theirs with a silver lining in that it spurred lawmakers into developing these grant programs. Since then, Integrity has received $99,000 from the program, money that will go towards meat grinders, antimicrobial flooring, and those long-awaited bacon slicers.
In Dubois County, family startup Sander Processing has recently been expanding. Founded in 1988, Sander was a busy operation even before the coronavirus outbreak. Working seven days a week, co-owner Kent Sander and his employees were able to process a total of 45 heads of cattle and 70 pigs per week. Once meat demand began to skyrocket in March of 2020, it became apparent that Sander would have to grow the scope of their production. For them, the CARES grant program came at the perfect moment. “The grant money was very important just for the simple fact that we were able to increase our production,” said Sanders in a recent interview. “Getting bigger machines, we were able to increase our products.”
The larger operation came with a need for more staff, as Sander was able to grow their workforce from eight full-time and six part-time employees to 25 full-time and 22 part-time employees. Productivity has gone through the roof to match this surge in capacity. Now, Sander processes 70 heads of cattle and 90 pigs, the key difference being that it comes from a five-day workweek rather than seven. Additionally, the business has made enough profit to begin expansion to a second location in St. Anthony. Thanks to the CARES Act, the small family producers that serve as the backbone of our food supply chain are not just surviving, but thriving and offering new job opportunities in the process.