COVID-19 has forced many meat processing plants to close, making it difficult for those with small ranches to prepare their meat to sell, and causing a shortage of meat for consumers. In addition, food pantries have seen a 30% increase in demand for fresh fruits and vegetables due to unemployment caused by the pandemic.
With the local food industry suffering from the decreased supply and increased demand, the University’s Experiment Station, part of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, stepped up to the proverbial dinner plate to help producers stay in business and consumers get the food they need.
The Experiment Station’s Desert Farming Initiative and Wolf Pack Meats have not only been able to continue providing quality meat, fruits and vegetables to the community, but have also increased their production.
Providing fresh local produce
The Desert Farming Initiative, under the direction of Project Manager Charles Schembre, grows over 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables. This season, they grew over four tons, all of which went back to the community.
“The Desert Farming Initiative has increased its donations of produce to community food services to help feed those in need,” Chris Pritsos, associate dean of research for the College and director of the Experiment Station, said.
Much of the produce was delivered through the Initiative’s normal operations, including selling produce at the farmers market at the Sparks United Methodist Church; supplying fresh produce to food hubs and restaurants, such as the Tahoe Food Hub, Fallon Food Hub, Great Basin Community Food Co-op, and Liberty Food and Wine; and donating produce to Catholic Charities and the Community Health Alliance.
“We’re excited about these avenues because they support the local food system,” Jill Moe, education program coordinator with the Initiative, said. “It gets fresh produce into the community, which is important to us.”
In addition, the Initiative ran a COVID-19 specific donation drive as part of its Farm Share Program, which provides weekly boxes of produce to 35 University faculty, staff and students. The drive allowed the Initiative to deliver an additional $1,000 worth of produce to the Community Health Alliance, broken into weekly deliveries of about $100-$150 worth of produce each.
“We’re glad to be getting fresh produce to the community during a time when there’s been a serious disruption in the way consumers receive their produce, both locally and nationally.” - Jill Moe.
The Initiative also gave a webinar on how fruit and vegetable producers can manage the COVID-19 pandemic on the farm. The COVID-19 Prevention on the Farm webinar is available on the Initiative’s website and has reached at least 380 producers.
Helping local ranchers stay in business
Wolf Pack Meats is one of only two meat processing plants in Nevada capable of providing U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected harvesting services to local farmers, making it an extremely important facility in ensuring local producers stay in business during COVID-19.
“Wolf Pack Meats not only continued to slaughter and process meat following all food safety guidelines, but actually increased its operation to 120% of normal to help local ranchers get their product to market and to help provide additional meat for local consumers,” Pritsos said.
To provide the best assistance to the ranchers who depend on the facility for meat sales, Wolf Pack Meats followed the initial recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for meat plant employees and was the first facility on the University campus to implement the use of masks, face shields, social distancing and additional measures to improve good manufacturing practices.
“Producers who contribute to the local meat market greatly benefited from the ability of Wolf Pack Meats to continue providing services during COVID-19,” Amilton de Mello, assistant professor of meat science and director of Wolf Pack Meats, said. “We never stopped serving customers. In fact, we were actually able to serve a higher number of them.”
The facility’s COVID-19 response was the latest set of policy changes in what has been several years of renovations and upgrades to meet commercial meat processing standards and ensure food safety. These upgrades allowed the facility to quickly respond when COVID-19 hit, so that the facility could continue operating during the pandemic.
Wolf Pack Meats was originally designed to be a meat lab used purely for academic and research purposes. However, when the recession hit, the need arose for the facility to start bringing in its own income. As a result, the decision was made to convert the lab to a full-fledged commercial processing facility that would also serve to support local ranchers.
In 2015, de Mello was hired to help develop the facility’s Meat Science Program and serve as a food safety specialist with the College’s Extension unit, and in 2019, he became the facility’s director.
“One of the goals of my mission was to find a way to better integrate teaching and research in a commercial facility,” de Mello said.
Under his leadership, Wolf Pack Meats has seen significant changes in equipment, policies, food safety, remodeling and staff training. One of the biggest changes was the implementation of an electronic system for scheduling and processing orders.
“The scheduling system allows us to serve a larger and more diverse pool of local farmers, increasing our capacity to provide 20% more service than we were before,” de Mello said.
Other changes include updating policies to meet the USDA’s requirements and regulations, putting up a defense barrier to separate the meat processing area into an “employees only” are to reduce the risk of food contamination and improve food safety, increasing the number of employees, and installing new and updated equipment for both employee safety and processing efficiency. Upgrades to the equipment also allow students to be trained on state-of-the-art equipment used in the industry.
One piece of equipment in particular came with a partnership with LeFiell Company, a local manufacturer of meat harvesting equipment. The company donated a $100,000 piece of equipment to help the facility improve its efficiency.
Today, the facility harvests about 3,000 animals each year, while providing students with the chance to not only see the commercial process in action, but also receive hands-on training and experience in a real commercial facility.