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COVID-19 impact stretches from farm to table

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for area residents — from farmers to restaurant owners

Photos by Deb Gau Hitching Post owner Tom Handeland, along with Extra Innings owner Mike Sweetman, and Allen Deutz of Deutz Heritage Farm spoke with local media on Wednesday about how the COVID-19 pandemic response has affected their businesses.

MARSHALL — Explaining all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Marshall area businesses is a complex task. Business shutdowns have had impacts that reach from farms to meat processing facilities, to restaurants and dinner tables. Marshall area farmers and restaurant owners say that while they’ve been able to make temporary changes, the big question is how long they will be able to keep this up.

“The support we’ve had has been great. I worry about the stability of it,” said Extra Innings owner Mike Sweetman.

Sweetman, Allen Deutz of Deutz Heritage Farm, and Hitching Post owner Tom Handeland spoke with local news media on Wednesday about how COVID-19 has changed the business landscape. Deutz Heritage Farm operates a farm-to-table service for beef and pork, and also supplies meat to local businesses including the Hitching Post and Extra Innings in Marshall.

This spring, both shutdowns of bars and restaurants and outbreaks of coronavirus at meatpacking plants have impacted farmers around southwest Minnesota. Deutz said Deutz Heritage Farm has been “doing OK” with a diversified business model, but they have seen changes in customer demand.

“For restaurants, obviously that’s slowed up a little,” he said. Meanwhile, interest from customers who wanted to buy directly from local meat producers increased.

A challenge facing farmers who want to sell directly to consumers is finding a facility to butcher their livestock, Deutz said. There aren’t many options in the region for USDA-inspected meat processors, he said — Deutz Heritage Farm uses a processor in South Dakota.

There aren’t as many local butchers or meat lockers in the Marshall area anymore, Deutz said. “The ones out there are custom (lockers), and they’re few and far between.” In the wake of disruptions at big meatpacking plants, smaller lockers are also getting booked up, he said.

Area restaurants, meanwhile, are dealing with disruptions in the supply chain, higher meat costs, and orders to close down except for takeout and delivery. Starting June 1, bars and restaurants will be able to reopen, but only for outdoor seating with a maximum of 50 people at a time.

With those limits, Handeland said, it will be harder to make money. Restaurants would be serving fewer customers, while still having to maintain kitchen and serving staff.

“Restaurants are going to be at risk if things don’t change,” he said.

“We’ve been one of the fortunate few,” in that the Varsity Pub and Extra Innings in Marshall had already been set up to do takeout and delivery orders in the past, Sweetman said. Sweetman said community support for takeout has been good, but he estimated Extra Innings was now making about 75% of its normal volume of sales.

Sweetman said Extra Innings had opened a new location in St. Peter just as the COVID-19 shutdown hit in March.

“We were just planning for the grand opening over there,” he said. Delivery in St. Peter was gaining momentum, but Sweetman said loans from the Paycheck Protection Program helped keep the new location open.

Handeland said he shut down the Hitching Post’s Annandale location because of the reduced business restaurants are seeing across the state.

“Half the business doesn’t pay the bills,” he said. Handeland said he would wait to see what happens with the Annandale location.

Managing costs of supplies and staffing are ongoing challenges for restaurants operating at a reduced capacity, Handeland and Sweetman said. Costs of meat — depending on the cut of meat and where it was processed — have been skyrocketing, they said.

“I think the end of July is going to be an awakening,” Handeland said. When PPP loan funding runs out, more businesses may fail.

Other questions remain for farmers and restaurant owners. A big one is how long the affects of shutdowns will last. Others include how transportation and fuel costs will be affected in the future, and whether customers will be willing to eat in restaurants or pay higher prices for food if the economy doesn’t recover.

The COVID-19 crisis may have exposed vulnerabilities in the systems connecting food producers, businesses and consumers. But in the long run, it might take some major shifts in thinking to solve the problem, Deutz said. Big businesses might be efficient and cheap, but they eliminate local businesses, and if they’re disrupted the effect is widespread.

Small towns used to have their own local creameries and food processors, that in turn would employ people in the area, Deutz said.

“Historically, that’s how we’ve always done food production, is local,” Deutz said. “We need that to continue on, and we need that to continue locally.”

“We almost have to have a paradigm shift in the community,” he said.

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