Kent Hutchinson, a customer at Aroostook Milling Company in Houlton, looks through the freezer of local meats while shopping on Thursday. "I thought I'd give it a try," Hutchinson said, who had not purchased meat there before. Aroostook Milling Co. has seen a significant increase in sales of local meats while national chains are struggling due to the coronavirus.

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HOULTON, Maine — Major national meatpacking companies, such as Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings and Cargill have seen closures and breakouts of COVID-19 in more than dozens of locations across the country — including the Tyson Foods facility in Portland.

Even fast food chains such as Wendy’s have announced limits on what can be purchased.

But the struggle in national chains has led to an opportunity for local farms in Aroostook County that sell beef, pork and other meat products to earn extra income.

With only seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in The County — and only three of those active as of May 16 — it’s an area relatively safe from the virus, and has begun the process of reopening under the orders of Gov. Janet Mills.

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Erin Parisien, who owns Aroostook Beef Co. in New Canada along with her husband Richard, said she had seen her business increase in recent weeks, perhaps owing partially to national meat producers being forced to close due to virus outbreaks among their workers.

“There’s been a definite uptick,” Parisien said. “It’s still predominantly a lot of our regulars, which is good because my main concern was making sure we don’t ditch those guys for all the new people kind of walking in right now.”

The Houlton-based Aroostook Milling Company, which purchases livestock from nearby farms and sells the meat products, also said it has seen a large increase in sales, and has had to purchase more livestock to meet demand.

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“We’re buying more and selling more,” Nick Crane, one of the owners of Aroostook Milling Co., said. “We’re just selling more of everything.”

Melissa Jandreau — co-owner of Hill Top Farms in Frenchville — said she had also noticed more people interested in purchasing local beef and live calves. She said sales spiked after reports emerged about meat workers in larger facilities nationwide testing positive for COVID-19.

“We have noticed more people looking for local meat products instead of going to the stores,” she said.

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With the cancellation of livestock auctions that usually provide the farm an outlet to sell its cows, Jandreau planned on selling directly to consumers. While she said that sales may not be as high, she hoped the public’s newfound interest in local meat would elevate business.

The increase in buyers is a rare opportunity for local farm producers to gain access to a market dominated by large factory farms. According to a study done at the animal welfare think tank Sentience Institute, which used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 70 percent of cows, 98 percent of pigs and 99 percent of chickens farmed for meat are owned by factory farms throughout the United States — identified in this case by the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “Concentration Animal Feeding Operations.”

The reduction of factory production can have several chain effects as well. Even before the virus hit, American pig farmers had already been damaged economically by President Donald Trump’s tariffs as part of the trade war with China, where pork is in high demand.

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With the virus now affecting the nation’s meat supply chain, such as the closure of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota where at least 634 employees tested positive — the damage is likely to increase.

The harm to the meat processing industry seems to extend to farmers who primarily sell to them, some of whom are now killing and disposing of pigs that have grown too large to be processed.

“I feel really bad for the farmers, because when you bring a pig to market, it’s time sensitive,” said Deena Albert Parks, who owns Chops Ahoy farm in Woodland, which specializes in pork products.

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“They’re growing that pig to market weight, which is roughly 250 pounds, and you still have to keep feeding the pig if it doesn’t go to market. If they wait too long and it gets up to 300 pounds or more, it doesn’t fit on the slaughtering equipment, then you have breakage of equipment and all other kinds of issues.”

Like Parisien, Parks said she has also seen an increase in her business. She attributes it to customers who may not want to wait in lines at the grocery stores, or people whose immune systems may be compromised.

But she said she isn’t sure how long the sales bump will continue when the big production plants that employ thousands get back in operation.

“A lot of people honestly don’t care where their food comes from. I have a hard time saying it, but it’s true,” she said. “People want a steak, they want a certain kind of steak, when they want the steak, and if it’s not at the store, they get mad.”

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