Brad Merkley (right) gives ISDA Director Bruce Kettler (front
Merkley and Sons Meat Packing in Jasper has been in business since 1954 with a loyal customer base that has come to rely on them for locally sourced hams, steaks and a variety of smoked meats. Now, a fourth generation of the family is running the business: John and cousin Brad. While the family-owned meat processor in Dubois County has decades of business experience, nothing could have prepared the Merkleys for the global pandemic.
“We were caught completely off guard for how much demand there was going to be,” said Brad Merkley in an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
As grocery stores saw customers clear out meat coolers and toilet paper shelves in the early days of the pandemic, many turned to local meat processors.
“As compared to any holidays, or anything that you are always prepared for, we weren’t prepared at all for this. And it was right in the middle of Lent,” said Brad Merkley. “It seemed to go on for four or five weeks really, really strong and then stayed strong throughout the whole summer.”
John Merkley says the pandemic brought new customers to their meat processing shop.
“When they couldn’t get the meat anywhere else, they were coming to us, and we have retained a lot of that business,” said John. “However, I will say consumers seem to be going back to their old buying behaviors. They’re going to Walmart and they’re going to all these other places that do rely so heavily on that big food chain.”
John Merkley says as demand increased, pressure was placed on workers to keep up in a very grueling, labor-intensive setting. He says the tough nature of the work, such lifting sides of beef and working in freezing temperatures, can take a toll on some workers.
“It’s a challenge of having a new job, and a new job that is incredibly strenuous. We had several people that they may last two days,” said John.
To help with the workforce challenge, the Merkleys applied for and received $94,000 in federal CARES Act funding as part of the Indiana Meat Processing Expansion & Development Grant Program, administered by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
The money was distributed to about 40 smaller meat processors in the Hoosier State to help them offset the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Merkleys used it to invest in newer equipment.
“So having that equipment took the strain off of [the new employees], let us get them in, get them onboarded, get them trained. And then, you know, it just takes that if you get the physical aspect out of the job. It was a lot easier to get people in here, which has been a struggle for us over the last several years to attract the employees, and then retain them,” said John Merkley.
At Sander Processing in Celestine, butchers boosted production last year to help local farmers who were reselling their processed beef and pork to customers. Kent Sander says some of those farmers found out at the last minute they were not going to be able to get their livestock processed at the Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN) in Logansport as it dealt with widespread COVID.
“They would go to Facebook and sell them for whatever their price was, and people were looking for meat so they would take it. Then [farmers were] calling us trying to get him in. And we squeezed every last one we could in to help,” said Kent Sander. “All these farmers that we didn’t want to just dispose of pigs that were fully market-ready to go. It wasn’t the farmers’ fault.”
Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Bruce Kettler toured multiple meat processing plants the past three months to see how they are investing the money. He’s hoping the investment will entice local customers, who may have tried the local shop during the pandemic, to continue shopping at the nearby meat processor.
“Maybe just it just didn’t dawn on them because they were so used to going to a grocery store or somewhere else to get all of their food, including their protein needs,” said Kettler. “I think they started to realize and understand that a lot of times it’s locally-raised, it’s locally, I can get it the way that I wanted and still support my local economy.”
The Merkleys, now six decades in the business, hope he’s right.
“I think there’s always going to be a need for places like us,” said John Merkley.” So, I think our place is here to stay. We’ve been here for 67 years.”
Brad and John Merkley say they had to make quick adjustments when demand increased.