NEW RICHLAND, Minn. — Finding a processing plant to butcher a few pigs or steers can be a challenge in the best of times. When Covid-19 struck some large packing houses earlier in the year, the challenge increased.
Last May, 111 farmer-members of the Minnesota Farmers Union, Land Stewardship Project, Renewing the Countryside, and the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association were surveyed regarding their access to livestock processing. Most of the farmers responded and the Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), in collaboration with the four groups, published the study in July.
“Minnesota has a growing local livestock industry; but a persistent challenge for small and mid-sized livestock producers is limited small-scale meat and poultry processing,” MISA concluded in the survey’s summary.
One of the questions the surveyors asked farmers was, “Are livestock processing options in Minnesota adequate for your business (even before Covid-19)?”
Sixty-four percent of the 105 respondents to that question answered, “no.”
The surveyors asked the respondents to explain their answer.
“We are begging to get animals processed. Normally it’s six months out. The shops are doing a good job and the best they can,” a farmer wrote.
Since a third of the respondents reported processing options were adequate, some answers reflected that.
“We were lucky to have already booked fall appointments; but due to the soaring demand for processing, I’m already booking for fall 2021 — which would have been unthinkable in years past,” another respondent said.
The Streblow family, who operate a diversified family farm and a bakery in and near Granite Falls, Minn., were not among the surveyed farmers. They would, however, be among the nearly two-thirds of the farmers surveyed who find processing options to be inadequate, Randi Streblow told The Land.
“Because of Covid-19, the meat processors all have full schedules,” Randi (whose family uses a processing plant in nearby Granite Falls) said. “Our pigs will be processed much later than the ideal time because of this. We will also make less money on them because we will be feeding them longer. Before Covid, we could schedule one to two months ahead; but now it is more like eight months.”
The Streblows also raise pastured poultry. They butcher some of the chickens on their farm.
“We process many chickens ourselves and can sell them from our farm,” Randi said. “But to sell them to restaurants or to our bakery, they have to be USDA inspected. Our inspected chickens were previously processed in Hector, only forty minutes away. They closed in January 2020. Now the nearest facility is in Utica, four hours away. We tried one trip to Utica and lost too many birds on the way. It is too long for them to travel. We do not have another alternative for getting them inspected in a USDA or Equal-to facility. This is a big problem because we use our chicken at our bakery and they must be USDA inspected.”
Jim and Gloria Hobbs, who raise Hereford and Hereford Angus cross beef cattle near Burtrum, in central Minnesota, weren’t surveyed either. Jim, who works with three different small processors, says that booking butcher dates with those processors as much as eight months in advance is simply a normal part of doing business in his area. Covid pushed that schedule out a bit.
“Covid-19 has not affected our relationship with our processors, but has affected our ability to get into them as easily or quickly,” he said. “During 'different' times like this the equation changes some and calling earlier and guessing a bit more early on how things will go is required.”
During most time of the year, his area has adequate processing capacity, Jim believes. Some plants in Central Minnesota quit processing livestock in November and turn to processing the deer harvest. That require further scheduling challenges for farmers.
Morgan’s Meat Market, an award-winning market in New Richland, Minn., specializes in processing deer and other wild game — but manages to do that and continue to process farmers livestock during the deer season. That ability to be flexible and go the extra mile may be because of the dedicated staff, whom owner Dean Morgan praises.
“I’m fortunate that my guys will work as many hours as I can throw at them,” Morgan said, referring in particular to the shake-up in the industry when Covid shut down the big processors. “We ended up doing more slaughtering and my guys were working six days a week. There were a lot of pigs coming in.”
But even the most dedicated employees will only work six days per week for so long and Morgan’s Meat Market, which generally slaughters on Mondays, is booked for a year out and is making appointments beyond that.
“Our customers are starting to get in the habit of bringing their animals in for butchering and then setting up their appointments for next year,” Morgan said. “We have a waiting list so when someone cancels we fill in from there. We’re at full capacity almost every Monday.”
Small processing plants in general are at full capacity and the industry is having difficulty meeting the demand for two reasons, Morgan says.
The first reason is there aren’t enough plants or enough potential owners willing to take the risk to open new plants. The second reason is there aren’t enough meat cutters — and nobody in Minnesota is training new ones.
“I graduated in meat cutting from Pipestone Community College in 1985,” Morgan said. “When I was there, there were 120 students from as far away as Montana. But that was the last big class. They shut the program down in the early 2000s. The last class only had four or five students.”
“It’s like a lot of industries,” he continued. “The high schools are pushing students to go to a four-year college and not into the trades. Everybody that we’ve got working here I’ve trained. If you train somebody to do butchering and processing you’re investing in them.”
Morgan points out that the meat cutting trade pays well, is indispensable even during Covid, and is a skill to be proud of. He also points out businesses like his need small farms to survive. Jim Hobbs and Randi Streblow says it goes both ways. They need small processors to keep operating.