Essentially CALS: Sarah Blacklin

Sarah Blacklin, program director of NC Choices, is no stranger to working remotely, but the pandemic-created meat supply chain crisis has kicked her professional life into a higher gear, given the expertise she has to share.

“Empty meat cases in the grocery stores, news headlines, processing challenges and consumer demand directly impacted the partners I work with on a daily basis: local farmers and meat processors,” Blacklin said.

Sarah has been an excellent visionary and implementer of ideas

Many local meat producers are experiencing booming business, but this opportunity is limited by processing bottlenecks. To help, Blacklin spends her days calling, texting and Zooming with processors, farmers, Extension partners and stakeholders —all in the name of identifying and troubleshooting challenges.

These are not the only challenges Blacklin is facing. She has a 3-year-old, a 6-month old and a partner who works in the food sector/grocery wholesale business, so their family is also juggling two kids without childcare.

Meanwhile, consumers are looking for meat and need help in finding resources. Local processors are trying to adapt to an influx of business, find trained labor and take care of their employees during a pandemic.

“NC Choices has worked with over 1,000 meat producers, regulatory partners and processors across the local meat supply chain in our state for almost 20 years, and the relationships formed are key to helping to solve these issues together. There are enough meat animal byproducts, but troubleshooting challenges facing the small-scale processing sector requires a multi-pronged approach with partners at the table,” Blacklin said.

“Sarah has been an excellent visionary and implementer of ideas and has successfully supported growing the local meat supply chain in the state by creatively addressing pinch points as they’ve arisen,” said Nancy Creamer, director for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and distinguished professor of sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems. “She is a great collaborator with partners across the state and nation, and we are truly lucky to have her in the state working on this issue and creating opportunities from the farm through the marketplace.”

The pandemic has increased the need for personal protective equipment and costs for small processing plants, as an influx of animals required the hiring of more trained staff.

Economic challenges make it difficult for small processors to adapt quickly. The high volume of livestock to be processed creates a demand for more paid inspection time, employees to work overtime hours, equipment to expedite processing and added storage such as more cooler space.

“Food and farming are essential to our community’s livelihood, and it’s our job at Extension to support those communities,” Blacklin said. “Unlike shelf-stable products, farmers cannot sit on harvest-ready animals for an extended time before they start losing money fast.”

Matt Poore, department Extension leader and ruminant nutrition specialist, credits Blacklin for meeting pandemic needs through her ongoing work and the March launch of MeatSuite, a website to help North Carolina consumers purchase locally produced meats in bulk. “Sarah has had a long history in our local foods scene in the Triangle, and she has skillfully guided NC Choices through some big changes in local meat opportunities both for consumers and farmers,” Poore said.

“Sarah’s vision became especially valuable in the face of COVID-19. When consumers could not find a good supply of meat in the grocery stores, they quickly turned to the local meat supply. NC Choices’ extensive resources and the early release of MeatSuite led to unprecedented impacts on the local meat supply chain.”

Thank you for all you do for everyone at CALS.

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