Where’s the meat? Solving a bottleneck in the meat supply chain vital to farmers’ profitability

Researchers studying bottlenecks in meat processing found a lack of skilled workforce and a lack of continuity by small processors. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

By Paul Sobocinski

COVID-19 brought a lot of hard lessons, one of which is that it’s not a good bet to put all of our meat processing needs into the hands of just a few large processing plants. When COVID infections soared, many large processors in our region had to shut down for a few weeks or more, disrupting the meat market and supply across our country.

Paul Sobocinski

Many livestock farmers who raise beef, pork, etc. — along with the small grains and pastures that feed them — can earn very reliable profits from directly marketing their animals to consumers who value the practices and care given by the farmer toward the animals and land. For this to work, however, we need local locker plants nearby to slaughter and process animals to order.

With the COVID-19 closures of large plants, the lack of local butchers in the meat processing industry was telling. Large livestock producers snapped up available processing opportunities as an alternative to euthanizing their excess animals — to the point where animals were scheduled for butchering up to a year in advance.

My customers, for example, couldn’t get the animals they wished to buy processed, and a number of farmers were left with the limited choice to sell animals into depressed markets providing rock bottom prices.

Despite a ready supply of meat from farmers, the closure of the large plants and the lack of local butchers caused a bottleneck in the supply chain, while demand was growing. The farmers got very low prices for their animals while consumers faced skyrocketing prices and empty shelves. This was a lose/lose situation, and it has the potential to happen again.

As a part of a team of unique researchers working in cooperation with the Minnesota Farmers Union, the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and others, we decided to look into this “bottleneck” in local meat processing capacity in Minnesota to figure out what the problems were for local butchers, and what could be done to help. We interviewed 57  small to medium-sized lockers in all corners of Minnesota to ask the owners their thoughts.

We learned that there is a severe shortage of trained workers in this industry. The job is physical, requires long hours, and requires a high degree of skill. Not everyone is cut out to be a butcher (no pun intended). Most locker owners were willing and able to teach the finer points of butchery to new employees, especially if the apprentice had basic knowledge and a strong work ethic. However, important business skills necessary to own and manage a business were best learned in more formal training courses.

We also learned that many local lockers close permanently when owners ready to retire can’t find a buyer.  Again, that’s a lose/lose scenario for both farmers and for consumers shopping for local foods. Any successful business transitions we examined tended to take place within a family, with an existing employee, or with skilled outside assistance from local development authorities.

Our team partnered with the Latino Economic Development Center to interview Latinos and other immigrant workers already working in Minnesota’s larger slaughter plants. We found many yearned to expand their opportunities by managing or owning their own locker plant. They faced additional obstacles, however, like  language barriers or credit history issues, which prevented them from pursuing their dreams — dreams that would help to solve the shortage of workers and buyers of Minnesota’s local lockers.

We have published a 38-page report full of data, stories and recommendations to support and expand the local meat processing industry. The report is available on the U of M’s Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture’s website, here.

We are committed to working with many partners to bring our recommendations into reality: Apprenticeships for willing workers; programs to overcome the special barriers facing our hard-working immigrant communities; and, advice and assistance for existing locker owners looking to find a buyer as they reach retirement.

As a livestock farmer committed to the highest standard of individual care for my land and animals, I know that if we succeed in addressing the bottleneck in meat processing, farmers that direct market their livestock will thrive by being able to supply the booming demand for local meats through local lockers.

My community, along with many other rural communities, will benefit from a steady food supply that can better withstand the type of disruption that COVID-19 brought to all of us. Sounds like a win/win to me.

About this column

The author: Paul Sobocinski is a livestock farmer from Wabasso, Minn., who direct markets beef and pork in addition to raising hogs for Niman Ranch.

This column was originally published by Minnesota Reformer, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: [email protected]. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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