DATCP Working to Beef Up Meat Processing Workforce
By Julian Emerson
Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Specialist
WAUSAU - An existing shortage of meat processors across Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S. was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and state agriculture and education officials hope a partnership will help add capacity by expanding the number of processing facilities and the number of people doing that work.
Representatives of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) discussed those efforts, the Meat Talent Development Program, at sites in Madison, Appleton and Wausau in late July.
The program consists of several facets, and is designed to attract students to meat-related careers, provide financial aid to students in Wisconsin meat processing training programs, and connect the meat processing industry with potential employees. It was announced in January, when Gov. Tony Evers said he was using as much as $5 million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding for the meat talent development initiative.
During a session Thursday, July 28th at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau to discuss the program, DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski said the effort will help provide more trained meat processing workers to an industry in dire need of them. The Meat Talent Development Program is part of ongoing efforts to add meat processing employees and businesses, thereby making the industry more resilient to disruptions like those that have occurred during the pandemic.
“We continue to hear from meat processors that they need hard-working, skilled employees,” Romanski told an audience of technical college officials, state agriculture experts, farmers, and others. “I believe that this program is going to help address that need.”
Other Wisconsin initiatives to address the lack of meat processing include the Meat and Poultry Supply Chain Resiliency Grant Program, $10 million in funding Evers’ office made available through ARPA dollars; and the $200,000 Meat Processor Infrastructure Grant Program that was approved by the state Legislature as part of the 2021-23 state budget.
Wisconsin Farmers Union has been a vocal advocate for investments in meat processing infrastructure and views these developments as a win for its membership, which deemed "Meat Processing Infrastructure and Services" a Special Order of Business for 2022.
Northcentral Technical College President Jeannie Worden said training more meat processing workers will be vital in the Wausau region. The area has twice as many meat processing jobs per person as the national average, she said. That figure is expected to grow by 21% during the next decade, and industry retirements are expected to be relatively high, with 27% of workers age 55 or older.
“This allows for short term training in the meat industry, and can rapidly build the workforce,” she said.
Romanski and WTCS Agriculture and Natural Resources Education Director Betsy Leonard praised the broad partnership behind developing the Meat Talent Development Program. Combining the resources of DATCP, WTCS, agriculture groups and other stakeholders is necessary to maximize the program’s reach, they said.
Efforts to form that partnership began in January 2019, shortly before the pandemic began, and have grown since, they said. Romanski recalled partners beginning to come together to address the growing need to increase meat processing sites and workers.
“It was like, hey, can we do something like this?” Romanski said of addressing the meat processing shortfall. “It was this tremendous connection of people associated with the meat and livestock industry in the state … all coming together to put our thoughts together to see what we can do to make a difference, to build resiliency, and then build a workforce.”
Hans Breitenmoser, a Lincoln County dairy farmer and County Board supervisor, praised efforts to address Wisconsin’s meat processing scarcity. Farmers often wait a year or longer to have their animals processed, he said. “If you don’t make an appointment for your animal a year in advance, (processing it) is probably not going to happen,” Breitenmoser said.
Rather than just training workers to get jobs in the major meat processors in the U.S., Breitenmoser, a Wisconsin Farmers Union member, urged Meat Talent Development Program overseers to enable the startup of more small meat processing businesses. Four beef packing companies – Cargill, JBS USA, Tyson Food and National Beef Packing – control more than 80% of the national beef market. When those companies experienced shutdowns during the pandemic, it caused meat shortfalls, significantly increasing prices.
“They may need help supporting businesses of their own,” Breitenmoser said of meat processing trainees. “It should also be our mission … that these people are able to come out of here and at some point really get that American dream and say ‘I’m going to start my own business.’ ”
Romanski agreed that increasing the number of meat processing sites would create more industry jobs, help alleviate a backlog and provide more protection against figure processing interruptions. Strong demand for funding made available through the Meat and Poultry Supply Chain Resiliency Grant Program is evidence of the need for that work, he said.
“These things are falling into place, and that’s why I get really excited when I see this kind of collaboration for this program,” Romanski said. “I really think it’s going to be able to build that workforce.” Learn more about Wisconsin Farmers Union's work on meat processing here.
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is part of an ongoing series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project.