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Meat processing bottleneck continues at local meat plants

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Rich Dobrzynski works on packaging ground beef at Johnson's Sausage Shoppe & Catering. Already last spring, owner Chris Johnson was backed up with meat processing orders into December because large meat processors were struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the reactions to the coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effect through the food system is that more people than ever want to have control over the food they eat. In the early stages of the pandemic people saw empty meat cases (along with empty shelves that normally held toilet paper) as the supply chain struggled to keep up with unprecedented demand. That was compounded as meatpackers had to close because they had outbreaks among their workers.

Consumers reacted to those early shortages by buying meat directly from farmers or local meat markets and having a stash of beef or pork (or both) in their freezers at home. (This has also created a shortage of freezers, with appliance stores having none to sell when demand is high and supply is low.)

Local meat businesses in Wisconsin are again deluged with requests for processing beef, pork and other livestock and most are reporting that they are booking those appointments into 2022 already. One small town slaughterhouse and meat market didn’t begin taking appointments for 2021 until after New Year’s and within a few days the entire year was booked up.

Before the pandemic, there had been increasing optimism surrounding the direct marketing of meat from farmers to consumers and what that meant for development of an additional income stream for farmers. Now that has taken a hit. This ongoing struggle to secure meat processing appointments has highlighted the need for more meat processing capacity – even here in Wisconsin, which has a robust complement of local meat processing plants.

Darin Von Ruden is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union

Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union said his members from throughout the state have been talking about their inability to secure processing appointments for several years. Members identified the need for more meat processing infrastructure as a Special Order of Business at the farm organization’s annual meeting a year ago.

“That bottleneck our farmer members were experiencing already a year ago has only been exacerbated by supply chain disruptions amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” Von Ruden said.

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Major meat processors were impacted. As large meat packing plants were forced to shut down in early stages of the pandemic because their workers contracted the virus, local meat plants were hit with a tsunami of demand. When the big packing plants were shuttered, some livestock were diverted to local butcher plants, which made the bottleneck worse. As the pandemic worsened, consumers turned to local butcher plants to purchase their meat.

In addition to fearing meat shortages, many customers wanted extra meat available at home to cut down on trips to the grocery store for safety reasons during the pandemic.

One meat market owner told us that people said they wanted to make fewer trips out, for safety sake, and they wanted to have that meat available at home.

Consumers want to know where their food is coming from and have purchased animals to raise on their own, or bought them from farmers who have found a new market, selling to that consumer market.

Because local meat processing is crucial for family farms that have been set up as a way to sell meat directly to consumers or through food co-ops and other retail venues, WFU believes that it is an important pathway to ensuring a future for family farms in Wisconsin.

This lack of processing capacity is also a bottleneck that prevents farmers from growing in response to consumers’ increasing demand.

A task force at WFU has been exploring the challenges of meat processing around the state and is offering a series of “Meatings” to talk about some of the challenges in this sector. The second of these “meatings” was held January 14 to explore the option of mobile slaughtering as a way to ease the processing of livestock. (See sidebar)

Skilled labor

Another challenge that has been identified is the skilled labor needed to expand local butcher shop capacity. These local meat markets have said that willing labor, with the skill to do the work properly, is hard to find. Recognizing that need, WFU offered scholarships for last fall’s session of the Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery program at Madison Area Technical College, as a way to encourage the next generation of butchers.

Another challenge that has been identified is the skilled labor needed to expand local butcher shop capacity. These local meat markets have said that willing labor, with the skill to do the work properly, is hard to find.

Farmers who are trying to market their meat directly to consumers are having a hard time continuing with that business model because scheduled processing dates are already into 2022. That means that a farmer marketing hogs would need to make an appointment for their market hogs before those market hogs’ mothers are even born. Some farmers have had to travel long distances to butcher shops to get a processing appointment and consumers have noted consistency issues with packaging and recipes – all of which can cut into farmers’ profits.

When WFU was approached by a group of its members about the potential opportunity of reopening a shuttered meat processing facility in Vernon County, the farm organization was among eight investors who committed $200,000 to the venture, which opened in August as Nordik Meats.

More broadly, WFU has met with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), UW-Extension and the UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) to discuss meat processing infrastructure and “we will continue to seek opportunities to partner on creative solutions,” Von Ruden said.

The farm group has taken the position that the state of Wisconsin should invest in meat processing as part of critical rural infrastructure in order to foster an environment in which family farms have equitable market access, the ability to be economically sustainable and grow to meet consumer demand for local meat.

The group is advocating for financial support from the state and from public-private partnerships to increase processing capacity and start new state-inspected and USDA-inspected meat processors.

County involvement

In addition, they say county economic development agencies should play a part in creating new meat processors because those additional businesses would have the potential to strengthen rural economies.

In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Agriculture has expedited approvals for new state-inspected plants, moving them up from a category called “Custom Exempt” and fast tracking grant funding to increase slaughter capacity. The state also created a grant program to provide funds for state-inspected meat plants to invest in additional coolers and equipment.

As part of WFU’s agenda for improving the meat processing climate in Wisconsin, they support the streamlining of regulations and easing the process for selling meat across state lines. Currently only USDA-inspected meat plants have the ability to sell meat interstate.

If meat processing plants have been inspected through state Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) programs, Farmers Union contends that local processors should be able to sell those products across state lines. That would be extremely important for a state like Wisconsin that is blessed with many state-inspected meat processors.

However, getting this accomplished might require federal action. Passage of the “Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants” (RAMP-UP) Act would help state-inspected or custom-exempt slaughter facilities gain federal-inspection status and allow them to have access to interstate markets.

Another federal move that could help local processors would be passage of the “Strengthening Local Processing” Act to increase the federal share of costs for state inspection and for Cooperative Interstate Shipment facilities. The legislation, says WFU, would also provide grants to small processors and state-inspected facilities as well as providing funding for education and training programs.

Montana Farmers Union, Von Ruden noted, recently secured funds to start a cooperative mobile slaughtering business and to develop a first-in-the-country college curriculum to teach meat processing from harvest to retail.

State efforts, like those in Minnesota and Montana, Von Ruden says, have focused on short-term solutions to the processing bottleneck caused by the pandemic, which is important because existing local processors need an injection of resources to meet current demand.

“But we also need to focus on building resilient processing infrastructure for the long term.” He adds that the history of monopolization and vertical integration in the meat industry has led to a consolidated livestock market and limited processing options.

He believes federal action in legislative and anti-trust arenas should address those ongoing issues.