Staff shortages continue to hinder local meat processors

Amber Burke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Jennifer Haskins weighs a blade chuck roast for customers, while working behind the retail meat case at Wilson Farm Meats in Elkhorn, Wis.

Although labor shortages continue to impact meat processing plants across the state of Wisconsin, processors and producers remain optimistic over consumer demand for retail products.

According to Justin Corman at Wilson Farm Meats in Elkhorn, Wis., his business is operating with just one-third of the staff they need to run at full capacity.

“Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, we used to get around a dozen job applicants a month. I bet we did not receive even one dozen applicants all of last year,” Corman said.

Unfortunately, not having enough employees is preventing growth for their business. Wilson Farm Meats is a local butcher and meat market, operating in Elkhorn since the 1870’s.

“When the pandemic initially shut everything down, business went through the roof, as we never faced a supply shortage like some of the grocery and large retail chains,” Corman said. “Customers came looking for meat because they couldn’t find what they were looking for at their local stores. For the most part, we have been able to retain many of those customers. Of course, we lost some customers who simply buy based on price. They have gone back to places like Walmart and Aldi’s.”

Wilson Farm Meats focuses on producing high-quality meat and higher-end award-winning pork products, as their operation is set up to specialize in butchering hogs.

“Most of our processing equipment is meant for getting hogs in and out quickly. We do try to take in as much beef as we can to support our customers,” he said.

Heath Mahaffy takes a break from processing locally-raised beef in Wilson Farm Meat's USDA-inspected facility.

However, due to beef processing being more time and labor intensive, “it takes more staff than we currently have, so we are not processing cattle as much as we used to,” Corman adds.

Because there is a lower consumer demand for lamb, Corman says they have eliminated processing sheep altogether.

Greater consumer demand coupled with the labor shortages have contributed to increased challenges for beef producers, as well.

“Scheduling processing appointments has gone from being something we think about on a quarterly basis now to years in advance,” said Leah Mindemann of Mindemann Farms in Sullivan, Wis.. “We currently have processing appointments scheduled for animals that aren’t even born yet.”

She also acknowledges that demand for locally-produced beef has risen significantly since the pandemic, as consumers have realized that grocery stores don’t produce their own meat products.

”Empty shelves at the stores have definitely increased the amount of interest in our freezer beef offerings,” Mindemann said. In fact, interest in Mindemann’s freezer beef has grown so much, they are now selling more than they raise.

Demand for locally-produced beef has risen significantly since the pandemic. Processing appointments have become a challenge for livestock producers.

In order to satisfy the greater demand, Mindemann says they have been able to reach out to their bull buyers and buy back some steer progeny to help fulfill customer orders.

Mindemann Farms sends approximately 60 steers to area locker plants each year. They have monthly processing appointments at a number of butcher shops in their area, including Wilson Farm Meats in Elkhorn. She said they utilize “Google Docs” to keep track of dates, locations, customers, cutting information, pricing, etc.

“It can be challenging booking out so far in advance as steers grow at different rates. Some months we take in fewer animals because a steer we thought would be ready for market isn’t quite there yet,” she said. “However, it all equals out at the end of the year. Some months, two steers will go to market and the next month eight will be ready to be processed.”

Corman can relate to the customer’s frustration with lack of processing appointments noting that Wilson Farm Meats is booked solid through the end of 2022. He says they receive phone calls every day regarding appointments in 2023 as well, but they have not opened the calendar for next year yet.

Mindemann empathizes with the butcher shops.

“I feel for the processors. It’s hard to find people who want to work and it takes time to train them. Plus, there are so many USDA guidelines and regulations to follow. It’s challenging for everyone,” she said.

Wilson Farm Meats utilizes job search websites, employment agencies and social media to try to recruit employees.

“When the pandemic first started, we had a flood of job applicants because restaurants were closed. Once unemployment payments became available, those applicants started drying up,” Corman said. Now, in addition to unemployment, citizens are receiving energy assistance and food stamps are easier to obtain than ever before.

“We have increased wage offerings, upgraded benefit packages and added more paid time off in order to try and attract employees,” he says.

When asked about pricing, both Mindemann and Corman explain that they have had to raise prices. At the farmer level, input prices have increased as well as costs at the locker plants.

 “We just raised customer prices in 2022, which is the first time in over five years,” Mindemann confirmed.

Corman says that they also have had to increase prices to their processing customers as well as their retail customers.

“Costs have increased across the board. We have to charge more because we have to pay more. It is a fact of the state of the industry we’re in right now,” he said.

Despite government aid offerings, Corman claims they haven’t been able to take advantage of many grants.

“Assistance we have utilized from the government has been small. Most of the grants are based on a lottery system and there is a large amount of small businesses submitting applications. Also, for many of them you have to match their contributions,” Corman said. “It is hard to take advantage of expanding your business when you don’t have the staff to support that growth. Our business is doing just fine, but it’s a shame that we can’t grow the company.”

Most of the state and federal incentives Wilson Farm Meats has utilized are based on trying to hire more employees.

All-in-all, Corman tries to remain optimistic.

“This is just a very unique time. I don’t know when or how it’s going to happen, but I can’t believe this is going to last forever. At some point, the industry will swing back around.”