Is the lack of local processing capacity the next big threat to family farmers?
By Danielle Endvick | Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Director
Optimism around direct marketing meat and building up the local food scene has taken a hit over the past year as a struggle around meat processing capacity unfolds across the state.
“Wisconsin Farmers Union has been hearing rumblings from members throughout the state for a couple of years now about struggles to secure processing appointments,” said WFU President Darin Von Ruden, who noted the need for more meat processing infrastructure was identified as a Special Order of Business at the family farm organization’s annual convention in January 2020.
“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.
Rising COVID-19 cases in packing plants led to plant closures, diverting some animals to mom-and-pop butcher shops, backing up conventional livestock markets, and even leading to the euthanization of hundreds of thousands of hogs.
Local meat processing is crucial for family farms who sell processed meat directly to consumers or through food co-ops and other retail venues. This allows farmers to set their own price rather than having to sell animals through unpredictable conventional markets; it’s an important pathway to ensuring a future for family farms in Wisconsin.
The lack of processing capacity is a stumbling block that also hinders farmers from growing to meet consumer demand.
On a national level, meat processing has become increasingly vertically integrated, with four companies controlling a majority of U.S. meat processing. Fifty meat plants slaughter and process 98 percent of the national meat supply — investing in processing is an investment in the security of our food supply.
WFU is taking a three-pronged approach to this issue, tackling it through education, cooperation, and legislation:
The WFU staff and a task force of farmer members have been exploring the challenges and opportunities around meat processing in the state and is engaging others to be a part of the discussion through a series of “Meat-ings.” Farmers, processors, and other stakeholders have been joining in to learn more and consider creative solutions.
Upcoming events will delve into the topics of mobile slaughtering and on-farm solutions, cooperative and community efforts, state and federal policy, labor struggles, and creative marketing approaches.
On a December webinar hosted by WFU, Brandon Clare of J.M. Watkins Meats in Plum City shared his perspective as a processor in rural Wisconsin. His business has grown immensely in the seven years that he has owned it, but a lack of skilled and willing workers is a struggle point.
“The biggest problem we have is the labor side of things,” Clare said. “This is pretty labor-intensive work … it’s hard to find people who want to do that sort of work.”
Recognizing the need for skilled butchers in the state, WFU offered scholarships for fall 2020 for the Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery program at Madison Technical College. The organization continues to seek out ways to encourage the next generation of butchers.
Many small-town Wisconsin processors are working in outdated buildings, often in areas where a town has sprawled around them and stifles the opportunity for growth, Clare noted. “Freezer space is limited here, because we’re in town.”
Like many processors in the state, he’s booking processing dates over a year out. He noted, “2022 is probably 85 percent filled for us.”
One thing most processors and farmers can agree on is a need for consistency.
“Right now, the biggest support we need is farmers’ patience,” Clare said. “For us, the consistent work is by far the best scenario, because we know what we’re going to be doing.” He encouraged farmers to get to know their processors and work to get on as regular of a processing schedule as possible.
“We need consistency,” agreed Brodhead farmer Jen Reimer, another panelist on the Dec. 10 Meat-ing. “We have had to go to a couple different places to get processed but they have different recipes, labeling situations, packaging.”
Such variations in product may not meet customers’ expectations and can cut into profits.
Trying to schedule processing dates a year or more in advance comes with its struggles, added Reimer, who markets grass-fed beef, hogs, sheep, and poultry.
“We’ve been booking into 2022 and just today had an issue with lamb dates,” she said. “I had two lambs I would have liked to have let grow for a while longer, but I don’t have dates in a couple of months, so we had to take them in smaller. It’s not the end of the world, but a bit of a loss in profit and quality.”
Colfax farmer Ken Schmitt markets his cattle mostly on the conventional market, partly because of the time commitment involved with direct marketing and coordinating lots of processing dates. “In the past we’ve had trouble and ended up going quite a distance from home to get them butchered,” he notes.
“What we’re hearing all over is the biggest problem is labor,” Schmitt says. “A lot of these small town butchers would welcome another processor or two in town; it’s just too much for them to keep up with.”
Cooperatives and community investment have a role to play in strengthening this weak link in local food chains. When WFU was approached by a group of Farmers Union members about an opportunity to collaborate on reopening a shuttered meat processing facility in Vernon County, the organization recognized the value of taking a collaborative approach. WFU was among eight investors who committed $200,000 to the venture, which opened in August as Nordik Meats.
Mount Horeb farmers Jess and Rich Bernstein are among farmers who have benefited from Nordik opening and expanding options for regional processing.
“I couldn’t get processing dates until I heard about Nordik, then got a date a few weeks away,” noted Jess. She is among a growing group of farmers who would support mobile or on-farm slaughtering options.
With Nordik’s success, WFU was recently able to sell its shares back to the other investors and is now considering additional opportunities for investing in processing infrastructure.
“WFU also 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,” said Von Ruden.
Innovative approaches can also be found in other states. Montana Farmers Union recently secured funds to start a cooperative mobile slaughtering business and to develop the first U.S. college curriculum to teach meat processing from harvest to retail.
Minnesota Farmers Union has been advocating around meat processing, too, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has provided resources for producers and small-scale processors and has expedited approvals for new ‘equal to’ state-inspected plants, moving them up from ‘Custom Exempt,’ and fast-tracking grant funding to increase slaughter capacity.
“As we look to improve the situation unfolding around meat processing, we must recognize that tied into this issue is a history of monopolization in the meat industry, which has consolidated livestock markets and processing options,” Von Ruden said. “WFU believes the federal government should be investigating antitrust in the meat industry and seeking to level the playing field for farmers.”
Existing local processors need an injection of resources to meet demand, but farmers are looking to leadership for an investment in processing that will last for the long haul.
“State efforts have focused on short-term solutions to the processing bottleneck caused by the pandemic,” Von Ruden said. “This is important but we also need to focus on building resilient processing infrastructure for the long term.”
RSVP for upcoming events at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/processing.