Next generation of butchers sharpening their skills
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
Where the pandemic revealed a gap in the food supply chain,
these educators and students are stepping in.
By Danielle Endvick
Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Director
Five years ago, well before the COVID-19 pandemic disruption of food supply chains garnered national attention, Paul Short and his colleagues in the Culinary Arts program at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) stumbled upon the lack of meat processing capacity in Wisconsin.
“We realized there was this great local food movement but a shortage when it came to having skilled artisanal butchers,” Short said. “So, we stepped up to try to get a program going.”
Developing the Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery program and recruiting enough students to get it off the ground took time, but the program hit full capacity in the fall of 2020.
The course was one of several educational opportunities featured on a March 25 “Meat-ing” hosted by the Wisconsin Farmers Union. The webinar was part of an ongoing series developed to shed light on the challenges and opportunities around meat processing in Wisconsin.
MATC sees artisanal butchery on the rise
“We realized going into it that this is a hard field to get a full-time college program going on, so we pared it down to where we have it today,” Short said. “It’s the perfect program in the sense that it’s quick – you get in and out and can start working in the industry.”
MATC offers a one-year technical diploma. Courses cover meat production and include a culinary arts perspective.
“Because of COVID, we had to change a bit of how we were conducting the program this year,” Short noted. “The slaughter class had to go online because students couldn’t go out into the plants.”
Instructor Joe Parajecki improvised, touring plants solo to create tutorial videos and inviting plant operators into online sessions to bring real-life experience to the students.
Under the tutelage of instructor Heather Oppor, students learn how to cut whole animals, quarters and primals. “From all of the meat that the students cut, we offer butcher boxes of meat through our retail butcher shop class,” Short said, noting learning the entrepreneurial side of the business has been an important component.
“What we do at Madison College is help you build the foundation, so you can build the house later,” he added, noting students leave with the fundamentals and skillsets needed to keep moving forward in the industry.
Short sees a rising trend toward artisanal butchery, with more students looking toward the model of the small-scale butcher shop.
“All of our students have shown an incredible amount of passion and drive,” Short said. “They care about what they’re doing here. If there’s one good thing we can say about the pandemic, it’s that it has made people rethink food sources and re-energized the local food scene.”
UW-Madison invests in state-of-the-art facility
In his role as Professor & Extension Meat Specialist at UW-Madison, Jeff Sindelar leads industry training programs, educates consumers at the Wisconsin State Fair, and assists with county, FFA, and 4-H meat and carcass judging contests. The latter, he notes, is in the hope that “maybe one day, some of those aspiring youth will end up wanting to have a career in the meat industry because of those experiences.”
Such aspirations could lead youth to the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building at UW-Madison. The $57 million facility, which opened in November, provides a space where staff and students can mimic the realities of working in a state-of-the-art meat processing plant.
“We can take an animal from alive to packaging at the consumer level,” Sindelar said. “It’s a fully-functioning meat plant that allows for learning experiences at the harvest, processing, packaging, and retail levels.”
Two of the facility’s lecture halls include glass-paned demonstration areas, complete with coolers where carcasses can be hung and processed.
Students can choose their track, earning a bachelor’s degree in either Animal Science or Food Science.
Sindelar also leads the Master Meat Crafter Training Program, a one-of-a-kind intensive meat industry training program designed to strengthen the meat processing industry. The program involves 2½ day workshops held six times over two years, homework assignments, mentorship, and a plant research project.
“We’ve seen a real demand for skilled meat processors, so the more opportunities for learning, the better,” Sindelar said. “Our focus here is on using science-based information to support the viability and growth of the meat industry.”
UW-River Falls shifts to meet industry needs
In northwestern Wisconsin, the UW-River Falls Meat Pilot Plant offers students a similar experience. The USDA-inspected facility caters mostly to undergraduate researchers and students.
“We have the same capability of going from live animal to retail products that are ready to go out to consumers,” said Meat Plant Manager Ryley Rehnelt. While many of the students who take meat science courses are pursuing a degree in Animal Science with a Meat Animal emphasis, the program also draws interest from those studying dairy science, food science, and agribusiness.
“We go through every aspect from the actual processing to HAACP and food safety to the retail side,” Rehnelt said. Those seeking an even more immersive experience can apply to be student workers in the meat lab.
Rehnelt hopes to revive an introductory meat processing short course later this year, given the growing interest he has seen over the past year.
“I’m working with colleagues to try and set some of these programs up for folks who want to learn more or those looking for industry training in a tighter time frame,” Rehnelt said. That course would likely span three days and cover live to carcass to primals on beef, lamb, and hogs, with the final day focused on value-added products.
“I’m really hoping to cater to what we can do to support our local meat processors,” Rehnelt said. “Labor has been a part of the problem over the past year, and we want to be a part of the solution.”
WFU offering scholarships
Last fall, WFU offered scholarships for students interested in meat processing. This spring, the family farm organization is offering aid for attendees to a Meat Processing Boot Camp coming up May 6-7 and June 17-18. (The WFU scholarship application is due April 15th.)
At 62, Mount Horeb farmer Heidi Hoff may not seem like your traditional meat processing student. However, when the WFU scholarship recipient signed on for her first session of the MATC Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery program last fall, she realized she was in good company. Students varied widely in age and experience. Some sought a career in butchery, others were looking to build their resume for the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“Each student came with their own background and expectations but all share a great deal of passion for doing this kind of work,” Hoff said.
Hoff is among a group of farmers who are organizing a producer-and-worker-owned cooperative meat processing endeavor in southwestern Wisconsin.
“The wages and regulatory burden, this maze of permits and licenses and regulations that are inherent to our industry, are a huge barrier for anyone getting into meat processing,” Hoff said. “They are particularly burdensome on the small processors and start-ups. If you’re a team of one or two people trying to open a business, you don’t have the luxury of JBS, or these other large processors, to have a whole department to handle regulations.”
Those are obstacles that must be maneuvered, though, for the sake of ensuring a secure food supply, Hoff believes.
Seizing the state budget opportunity
Consumer interest in local food exploded over the past year, as the pandemic challenged supply chains and left grocery store shelves bare.
“Consumers want to buy directly from the farmer, and farmers can’t afford a two or three-year wait to get animals processed; the system is truly broken in that regard,” Short said, noting cooperative models or mobile butchering could provide opportunities for entry into the industry. He stressed the importance of expressing to legislators the need for funding for meat processing education and infrastructure.
“If you were to do a search across the United States, you’re not going to find a lot of programs focused on meat processing,” Short said. “It’s our hope that education gets expanded so there are more opportunities for people to learn the trade of butchering.”
“There is a strong need for skilled butchers in Wisconsin, especially as many in the current generation of butchers age into retirement,” said WFU President Darin Von Ruden. “Our grassroots membership of family farmers set Meat Processing Infrastructure as a 2021 Special Order of Business, and we’re heartened by Governor Evers’ inclusion of funding in the state budget. We’ll continue to explore solutions to this multifaceted issue. Finding innovative approaches to addressing the labor gap is a critical piece of the puzzle.”
The WFU Meat-ing series concludes April 8 with a session on Creative Marketing Solutions.