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Wisconsin farmers grapple with lack of meat processing

By Danielle Endvick, Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Director

Rachel Henderson raises pastured hogs, sheep and poultry at Mary Dirty Face Farm in Dunn County. The animals complement her family's organic orchard and are a growing enterprise on the farm, particularly as interest in locally grown food has risen amid COVID-19 concerns.

Though the farm offers the space to expand their livestock ventures, the family has hit a stumbling block in growing that portion of their business — a lack of local meat processing capacity.

"We went from being able to get most of our needs met in our county to suddenly having to go significantly outside of the county for meat processing," Henderson said. "We were at a point last year where I was getting worried I'd be butchering a bunch of pigs and lambs myself because it took me so long to find a processor."

The Hendersons are not alone in their struggle. WFU has been hearing rising concerns from producers throughout the state over the past couple of years, even before local meat demand surged this spring amid the COVID-related closure of some large-scale U.S. processing plants.

Chippewa County beef and grain farmer Robert Begalke has customers lining up for beef halves and wholes but he, like many other farmers in the state, is facing processing appointments being scheduled as far as a year out. Some farmers have reported having to book butcher dates before calves even hit the ground.

"The butchers we do have are doing great work, but there's just not enough of them in the area anymore," Begalke said. "It used to be most rural communities had a butcher shop, but through the years, we've lost a lot of those. We need to invest in that infrastructure if we're serious about opening up ways for farmers to direct market and get out from under the conventional markets."

Similar stories echo from other corners of the state. In southern Wisconsin, April Prusia of Dorothy's Range in Blanchardville and other farmers in her neighborhood have been advocating for mobile slaughtering units to help alleviate processing bottlenecks.

Prusia says processing options in her region are lacking and worsened this spring as disruptions at large processing plants elsewhere in the Midwest rippled back to the local level. Likewise, she's heard from Minnesota farmers in her network who have even experienced processing appointments for animals being canceled.

Henderson and Prusia were among farmers who joined industry stakeholders and Wisconsin Farmers Union staff for a call on the issue in May. The group considered creative solutions to address the need for more processing capacity. Rural development funding targeted at meat processors, training opportunities to encourage butchery as a career path, options for mobile slaughter, and more transparent labeling of meat products were among the proposed steps forward.

"This is a really tough subject, because it is really hard for us to compete or change in our little state here or do something on a large scale when the monopolies that control the meat industry have so much control," Prusia said.

Both National Farmers Union and WFU have been advocating for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws, as consolidation in the meatpacking industry has led to just four meatpackers controlling the slaughter of over 80 percent of feedlot cattle in the United States. This spring, those "Big Four" — Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef — were accused of conspiring to fix cattle prices. In response, the Justice Department appears to be deepening federal antitrust scrutiny.

Seeking solutions

DATCP Livestock and Meat Specialist Jeff Swensen has been among those working to build meat processing capacity in the state.

"There is definitely a shortage of labor, of people wanting to go into meat processing," Swenson said, noting it can be a physically demanding profession. Industry stakeholders are pushing to recruit students for an Artisanal Modern Meat Production program at Madison College this fall. While there used to be several such programs around the state, few opportunities to learn meat cutting remain. See page 10 for details on the program and a scholarship opportunity.

Another struggle Swenson noted was a surge in direct market farmers. "In some ways, these direct market farmers and the more retail-focused butcher shops are competitors," he said. "Also, the processors' work force is aging; it mirrors very well with farmers, with many in their late 50s or 60s. It's hard work — meat processing is considered a high-risk profession with high insurance costs and people are realizing there's more money in retail. Couple all of that with the increase in local food interest — it's a perfect storm."

"The state of Minnesota has created a small grant program that provides between $1,000 and $5,000 to state-inspected meat processing plants for things like additional coolers and equipment," noted WFU Government Relations Director Kara O'Connor. "Investment through grants and rural development programs coupled with training programs to ensure future butchers are among the innovative strategies that could help improve the situation we're seeing across the state."

WFU members included Meat Processing Infrastructure as a 2020 Special Order of Business and the family farm organization will continue seeking solutions.

"The lack of processing is really limiting growth for a lot of farmers," Henderson said. "I think we have the market to expand and customers who would buy from us — the same goes for a lot of other farmers."

Endvick is communications director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. She raises beef cattle, chickens, one spicy pony, and a pair of rowdy boys on her family farm in Holcombe.

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