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Meat Processing Co-op Taking Shape

Jim Massey

Rural Voices Correspondent

ARGYLE – Livestock farmers across Wisconsin and the country have been dealing with a lack of meat-processing capacity in recent years, but the issue came to a crescendo during the pandemic. Many farmers scrambled to find a meat plant that had slots available to slaughter their animals, while others were forced to make long-into-the-future processing reservations for animals not yet born.


A group of entrepreneurs in southern Wisconsin decided to take matters into their own hands with the development of a cooperative to provide another local meat-processing option. The Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative came into fruition within the past year, and organizers are taking steps to provide a much-needed service for small-scale livestock farmers.


The leaders of the meat co-op
Three entrepreneurial women are the leaders of the Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative. Left to right are Heather Oppor, co-op vice-president; April Prusia, president; and Heidi Hoff, secretary-treasurer. (Submitted photo)

April Prusia, a Blanchardville hog farmer and president of the newly formed co-op, says organizers are moving ahead with a plan to convert a former grocery store in downtown Argyle into a facility that would process animals slaughtered on area farms. At the outset the co-op would contract with custom operators who would drop carcasses off at the facility for processing, with the eventual plans calling for the purchase of a co-op-owned mobile slaughter unit to be used by the organization.


Prusia has been working on the concept for years, and at one point received a federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant with two other farm women to explore meat-processing options for southern Wisconsin farmers. The plan developed legs during the throes of the pandemic when the demand for local meat exceeded the processing capacity of area meat plants.


“After our initial study nobody was really taking the bait (to get a project off the ground), but then COVID hit and everybody was like, ‘What were you talking about with this meat-processing idea?’ People could see the need was there,” Prusia says.


Prusia began conversations with Heidi Hoff, who had moved to the Mt. Horeb area from Canada and joined Prusia and others in the “Soil Sisters” network of entrepreneurial southern Wisconsin women farmers. With a background in veterinary science and an interest in animal agriculture, Hoff enrolled in the Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery Program at Madison College, where she learned the skills necessary to work as a meat-cutter.


Hoff recruited Heather Oppor, an instructor in the Madison College meat program and a former meat department manager at the Willy Street Co-op, to join the effort.


“We formed a (co-op) board in March (of 2021), I sold my (Madison) house in August of last year and moved to Argyle,” Oppor says.

In other words, she is all in.


Oppor will be the head meat cutter and general operations manager of the Argyle facility when it opens this fall. Between now and then, the management team will be attempting to raise money and retrofit the inside of the building into a meat-processing plant.


During phase one, the facility will be operated as an uninspected plant to handle beef, swine, sheep and goat carcasses brought in by custom slaughterers. The uninspected products could not be sold but would instead by consumed by the animals’ owners.


The next step would be to receive a license for state inspection, which would allow end products to be sold in Wisconsin. Phase three would be to apply for the state’s interstate meat shipment program, which would allow the meat to be sold anywhere in the U.S.


There are no plans for animals to be slaughtered on site at the Argyle processing facility, which made approvals by the Argyle Plan Commission and Argyle Village Board relatively easy to attain. Animal carcasses will be delivered to a loading dock in the back of the building, eliminating the traffic problems caused by livestock trailers and the sounds and smells associated with livestock about to be slaughtered.


The co-op board is planning to launch a “Kickstarter” fundraising effort this spring and seek memberships to help pay for the initial renovations. For starters, the building needs walk-in coolers and a rail system to hang carcasses.


Organizers hope to attract at least 40 farmers to become co-op members with a membership fee of $1,000.

April Prusia
Co-op president April Prusia raises heritage pigs on her farm near Blanchardville. (Submitted photo)

Prusia says the Wisconsin Farmers Union has been helpful in the effort by bringing visibility to the meat-processing issue. WFU recently prepared a Meat Processing Report that called for increased funding to train the next generation of meat processors, and identified Meat Processing Infrastructure as a Special Order of Business at the organization’s state conventions in 2020, 2021, and 2022.


The state Legislature made meat processing a priority by including $200,000 a year in the 2021-23 biennial budget for new meat processor grants. But the grant money didn’t come close to the $4.6 million requested by more than 100 applicants.


Jeff Swenson, livestock and meat specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, says the number of grant applicants demonstrates the widespread interest in expanding meat-processing capacity in the state.


“There’s a big demand for people wanting to improve infrastructure at their local plants,” Swenson says. “I think some of the frenzy is subsiding after the dust has settled from the problems we saw in 2020, but waiting lists are still long and three is still a need for more slaughter capacity.”


Swenson says the Southern Wisconsin Meat Co-op plan is interesting and he hopes it will be successful.


“I think the co-op concept is always interesting, having producers and processors working together,” he says. “I also think mobile processing is going to become more and more common as we build capacity moving forward.”


Hoff says there is widespread interest in expanding meat processing capacity in the state.

“Small meat processors are the answer for small producers,” Hoff says. “It’s all about keeping family farms viable.”

Oppor is about a month away from graduating from the two-year UW-Madison Master Meat Crafter Program, which is designed to provide participants with a well-rounded, in-depth and comprehensive knowledge of meat science, food safety and meat-processing principles.


“We really need to get more butchers out there,” Oppor says. “Every time I talk to colleagues they say they can’t find employees with the skills they need.”


Her experience at Madison College and with the Meat Crafter program will be invaluable to her as she oversees the meat cutting at the co-op, she says.


Other co-op board members include Jackie McCarville, a UW-Extension agriculture educator in Green County; Sarah Boyd, a trained chef who is training as a butcher; Pete Lammers, an associate professor of animal and dairy sciences at UW-Platteville; and Jeff Werner, a student in the Madison College Modern Meat program


Part of the board’s master plan is to introduce the co-op meat-processing concept to farmers and entrepreneurs in other parts of Wisconsin.


“We hope to make this a cookie-cutter-style project where we can share everything we’ve learned with other co-op start-ups,” Prusia said. “We did all this work, we don’t think others should have to reinvent the wheel. We all do better when we all do better.”


To learn more or sign up for co-op updates, visit www.meatsmithcoop.com. Want to support this effort? Check out the GoFundMe campaign and consider a donation to the crowdfunding efforts.


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