Several years ago, I was doing a lecture on animal welfare and I discussed that many people viewed large agricultural operations as being inherently bad. While writing on the white board, I suddenly had a lightbulb moment: Big is not bad; it is fragile.

That thought was triggered by remembering a 2013 ice storm in Canada that destroyed electrical transmission towers. The damage caused a power outage that lasted for weeks. I also remembered driving through Kansas in the heart of feedlot country after an ice storm and seeing toppled electrical towers along several miles of the highway. When the wires became covered in ice, the towers were bent over until the cables rested on the ground. If more towers in another location had toppled, major beef plants could have easily lost their power supply due to this week link.

In both my lectures at Colorado State University and my meat industry presentations, I have always said that the quality of management is more important than the size of the farm. Both large and small farms can be either good or bad. It depends on the performance of the management. 

Supply disruptions like the 2019 fire at Tyson’s Holcomb, Kan., beef plant and more recently, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have clearly shown us that big is fragile. Widespread restaurant closures reduced demand in the foodservice channel for perishable foods such as milk and produce and huge amounts were wasted. At the same time, food pantries serving the poor were desperate for food. Foodservice distributors should establish links with food pantries so future losses can be prevented.

At the time of writing this article, I had not flown anywhere since March 12. During this time, I have observed a slow deterioration in supply chains for food and other non-food goods. Most people do not understand supply chains. Many people get angry when their purchases from Amazon are delayed. They have no idea how disruptive COVID-19 is to businesses of all types and sizes. Most people do not consider that to get food into a store or delivering packages door-to-door requires a network of hundreds of people to drive trucks and work in warehouses. There is an immense infrastructure that until recently was completely off the public’s radar.

In the early stages of the pandemic, I looked up figures of the number of people who work in supply chains who became sick. It was much lower than health care workers, but COVID-19 has caused both slowdowns and shutdowns of warehouses and meat and poultry processing plants. Major meat companies have responded by testing employees for COVID-19, temperature screening workers, installing workstation separators and paying sick employees to stay home. Many plants have been temporarily shut down for deep cleaning and disinfection.

There are also other logistic problems many people have not thought about, such as truck driver shortages. Driver training schools and department of motor vehicle closures have interrupted the entry of new truck drivers into the system and many new drivers are unable to get their commercial driver’s licenses (CDL). Between the middle of March and into April, deliveries from online retailers became slower and slower. This was due to more people working in grocery stores and meat plants as well as truck drivers and warehouse workers getting sick. Employees are increasingly not reporting to work because they are afraid they will get sick while others have walked out of their jobs.  Some companies in the supply chain are getting creative. I recently received a delivery from UPS that arrived in a bright yellow Hertz rental box truck. Perhaps they are using this type of vehicle because the driver does not need a CDL to drive it.

There has been interest in locally sourced for a long time, but it was mostly a priority for high-income consumers. Lower-income consumers traditionally bought the cheapest food. During one of floods on the East Coast this past year, a woman in a news report said, “I did not get scared until I saw the shelves stripped at Walmart.” Moving forward, everybody is going to be thinking a lot more about where food and other essentials come from. Disruptions from storms, fires and now the pandemic are disrupting supply chains. The public is recognizing the reality and the importance of the supply chains that bring them food.