As Andy Sorg III surveyed the damage to his butcher shop off Highway 14, corn chaff blew on a light wind through the shop’s shattered roof and east walls.
Above, visible through a yawning hole in the roof, was the sky and a flock of birds on the wing.
Daylight and wind should not be pouring into the meat processing room at Sorg’s Quality Meats and Sausages.
But that has been the scene since Sunday afternoon, when a 70-foot concrete silo filled with harvested feed corn collapsed and smashed through the back side of the family meat market.
Wiped out is a year’s worth of feed for Sorg’s cattle operation. The shop’s main meat processing room is heavily damaged and still open to the elements. Sorg’s butcher operations are halted while insurance officials survey the wreckage. Thousands of pounds of bison meat, beef and pork in the shop’s adjacent freezers also is likely ruined, covered in a mangled mess of building debris and spilled corn.
It comes at the tail end of a year that has brought the COVID-19 pandemic, then food hoarding, then fresh meat shortages and now unending demand that has strained small, rural meat markets such as Sorg’s. They’re booked solid on meat orders for months, overloaded and stretched thinner than any time in their existence.
Sorg still didn’t know Thursday how or why the silo collapsed, but the damage is clear as the daylight shining inside the main workroom. Sorg was a few miles away, running a load of grain to an elevator, when the silo toppled and crashed its payload—30 acres of harvested grain—into the back of the market like a bomb.
“My son called me and said, ‘The silo hit the shop, Dad. It’s in the shop,’” Sorg said. “I got out of my semi, and I puked right on the spot.”
Wrecked or buried under debris is at least 60 freezer trucks worth of packaged meat cuts and hand-packed sausage. And that’s just meat from animals Sorg’s owns. The market is still taking stock of others’ orders in the locker.
Perhaps worse, Sorg’s has at least 40 butcher’s orders backed up, and, like many small butcher shops, they’re booked out almost a year on orders, the family said.
This week, farmers and other customers unaware of the destruction or the scope of the damage continued to call Sorg’s to try to book more butcher’s orders in a year that seems bound by unceasing demand and unfathomable misfortune.
Andy Sorg II, Sorg’s father, has operated Sorg’s since 1959. The last time the meat market dealt with a run on fresh meat like the one this year, it was during the Nixon administration in the summer of Watergate.
“We’re overloaded. We were overloaded before the silo came down. Everybody is overloaded,” he said.
The farm’s patriarch, who is 82, said the damage at the farm is unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“One of the insurance guys came out here, took one look at all of this and said, ‘I’m not equipped for this. This is beyond my capability,’” Andy Sorg II said.
This year, major meat processors nationwide have been stung by a glut of demand and intermittently shut down by outbreaks of COVID-19 in their plants. Some big processors have been unable to meet spiking demand as consumers last spring and summer began panic buying meat during the height of statewide coronavirus lock downs.
Analysts and lawmakers in other states have likened small-scale meat processors such as Sorg’s as little engines that could in the pandemic. The analysts have painted rosy pictures of small farming outfits answering America’s call for fresh, farm-raised meat during the dark weeks of COVID-19.
It’s true to an extent, but the burden being absorbed by the small manufacturers has got small processors strained.
A share of Sorg’s customers are small-acreage farmers who bring in a steer or pig for slaughter and processing to produce enough meat to fill their home freezers for winter.
But this year, Andy Sorg II said, he’s had small pork producers book out processing jobs at Sorg’s a year in advance. Those hogs bound for slaughter literally haven’t been born yet. Sorg’s has begun charging up-front to process beef.
Both trends, Andy Sorg II said, “aren’t normal at all.”
Andy Sorg III said many of his staff haven’t had a full day off since March or April, when COVID-19 hit the Midwest with a vengeance.
“When I have a day off, I work on fencing and tend cattle,” he said.
Despite the silo crash, Sorg’s market is not completely without meat, and it continues to operate even with the avalanche of spilled grain out back.
Andy Sorg III and his son, Jon Sorg, said one local meat locker has loaned Sorg’s a meat truck to store some of the meat not damaged by the silo collapse. Another area meat locker offered to run Sorg’s processing until the farm can get their smashed butcher shop shored up.
Andy Sorg III said other markets’ offers are symbolic of the help the region’s small meat processors have always been willing to lend each other, but he said most local markets are too bound up by their own heavy demand for meat to help right now.
“If there’s one thing I want people to know, it’s that customers will have to be patient. We’re working as hard as we can on all this, and we’ve been working nonstop for weeks and weeks,” Sorg said.
“I’ve got to make sure our workers don’t tire out. We might take a few weeks to get caught up, but we will get caught up.”