Where’s the beef? Hackers bring it home

MURRYSVILLE, Pa. – Elaine Noll is standing in front of the cherry white and blue stand for Billy’s Country Smokehouse at the local farmers market. Wrapped around her left arm is a canvas bag filled with local roots and vegetables she purchased. She is listening as Shirley Stana explains to her the different fresh and smoked meats she has in her cooler from the local farm.

“I’ve always liked to purchase fresh vegetables from the local farmers markets,” Noll says of her armload of beets, turnips and kale. “It is more than just about supporting local farms. The vegetables are fresher, it is higher quality, and I know where it came from.”

Days after JBS, the world’s largest beef supplier, was disrupted by Russian hackers and forced to pay ransomware, farmers markets all across the state are being rediscovered by those interested in their operations. Although JBS shut down for only one day, many fear that the bigger a company is, the more vulnerable it is, and the less willing they are to depend on it.

Farmers markets, once places you had to find by driving on back roads, increasingly involve farmers big and small coming to city neighborhoods across the country, selling honey, fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk, among other things.

For many, those purchases only centered on vegetables. But today, the interest has expanded to freshly butchered pork, beef and chicken, explains Michael Little, who is manning the Chaganra Farm booth across the gravel marketplace. “What happened with JBS has really expanded interest in what we do,” he said. Little explains that Chaganra is an old family farm that has transitioned from row crops and dairy to regenerative agriculture.

“We do 100% grass-fed beef, pastured pork, pastured chickens, turkeys, eggs, that sort of thing,” he says. “We feed non-GMO feeds. So, we’re kind of a niche with respect to some other farms in the area, but we only sell what we raise in the way of meat. Everything is born on the farm.”

The fourth-generation farmer says people started rethinking meats during the pandemic. In the past two weeks since JBS’ systems were compromised and people worried about price and availability, both the interest and the demand have increased.

“We see from other farmers just how volatile it is, and that concern is shared by the consumer,” he says. “At JBS, everything is automated. Their slaughter lines do 3,000 to 4,000 beef a day versus my butcher that might do 10 or 12. It’s a huge difference. If my butcher has a power outage, they can default to a generator.” There is no generator that can make up for such a hack, however. “Their computers go down, and all of a sudden, the nation’s meat supply is cut off,” Little says. “Now, it was only for a day, but that vulnerability makes people think about how they want to purchase their food supply.”

Ransomware allows hackers to encrypt their victims’ files, then force them to pay a ransom to restore them. The threat isn’t just that they steal the files and make them useless; they can also threaten to publish them if the ransom is not paid.

Little admits that local, fresh meats will typically cost more than what you purchase in a supermarket. “You know, we have a different model than they do, but it’s based off of our real costs,” he says. “I think people are going to get that opportunity to try local farmers’ products and hopefully stick with them based off what they find in the quality and a difference.”

Wherever you live in this country, it is nearly impossible to live more than a brief drive from someone’s family farm. Amid advances in technology, consolidation, and increases in nonagricultural opportunities, there are still more than 2 million farms in the U.S. on 897 million acres. The average farm size is 444 acres, not much greater than the 440 acres recorded in the early 1970s, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For the American meat industry, Russian malfeasance may have nudged forward a gradual change in how people think about their dependence on larger corporations for necessities such as meat. Increasingly, they are looking to their own backyard for farmers to supply their dinner tables with meat, just as they have been doing with their vegetables for two decades now.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.