Where’s the meat? Addressing a bottleneck in the meat supply chain vital to farmer profitability

By Paul Sobocinsky

COVID-19 has brought many difficult lessons, one of which is that it is unwise to outsource all of our meat processing needs to a few large processing plants. When COVID infections soared, many large processors in our region had to shut down for a few weeks or more, disrupting the meat market and supply across the country.

Paul Sobocinsky

Many ranchers who raise beef, pork, etc. – and the small grains and pastures that feed them – can reap very reliable profits from the direct marketing of their animals to consumers who appreciate the farmer’s practices and care of the animals and the land. . For this to work, however, we need local trap factories nearby to cull and process animals on command.

With the COVID-19 closures of large factories, the lack of local butchers in the meat processing industry was telling. Large cattle ranchers took advantage of available processing opportunities as an alternative to euthanizing their surplus animals – to the point where animals had to be slaughtered up to a year in advance.

My clients, for example, could not get the animals they wanted to buy processed, and a number of farmers found themselves with limited choice to sell animals in depressed markets offering rock bottom prices.

Despite an immediate supply of meat from farmers, the closure of major factories and the lack of local butchers created a bottleneck in the supply chain, as demand increased. Farmers got rock bottom prices for their animals while consumers faced skyrocketing prices and empty shelves. It was a lose/lose situation, and it has the potential to happen again.

As part of a unique research team working cooperatively with the Minnesota Farmers Union, University of Minnesota Regional Sustainability Partnerships, Minnesota Meat Processors Association, Department of Minnesota Agriculture and others, we decided to look into this “bottleneck.” into local meat processing capacity in Minnesota to understand what the issues local butchers were having and what could be done to help them. We surveyed 57 small-to-medium sized lockers across Minnesota to ask owners what they think.

We learned that there is a serious shortage of skilled workers in this industry. The work is physical, requires long hours and requires a high degree of skill. Not everyone is cut out to be a butcher (no pun intended). Most locker owners were willing and able to teach new employees the intricacies of butchery, especially if the apprentice had basic knowledge and a strong work ethic. However, the important business skills needed to own and run a business were best learned in more formal training courses.

We also learned that many local lockers close permanently when owners ready to retire cannot find a buyer. Again, it’s a lose/lose scenario for both farmers and consumers buying local food. All of the successful business transitions we’ve looked at have typically taken place within a family, with an existing employee, or with skilled outside help from local development authorities.

Our team partnered with the Latino Economic Development Center to interview Latinos and other immigrant workers already working in Minnesota’s largest slaughterhouses. We found that many aspired to expand their opportunities by running or owning their own locker factory. However, they faced additional hurdles, such as language barriers or credit history issues, that prevented them from pursuing their dreams – dreams that would help solve the shortage of workers and home buyers. Minnesota local lockers.

We released a 38-page report filled with data, stories and recommendations to support and grow the local meat processing industry. The report is available on the U of M Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture website, here.

We are committed to working with many partners to implement our recommendations: Apprenticeships for volunteer workers; programs to overcome the unique barriers faced by our hard-working immigrant communities; and, advice and assistance for existing locker owners looking to find a buyer nearing retirement.

As a rancher committed to the highest level of individual care for my land and my animals, I know that if we succeed in solving the bottleneck in meat processing, farmers who directly market their livestock will thrive in being able to meet the growing demand for local products. meats in local racks.

My community, along with many other rural communities, will benefit from a stable food supply that can better withstand the kind of disruption that COVID-19 has brought to all of us. Sounds like a win/win to me.

About this column

The Author: Paul Sobocinski is a cattle rancher from Wabasso, Minnesota who directly markets beef and pork in addition to raising hogs for Niman Ranch.

This column was originally published by Minnesota Reformer, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact the editor Patrick Coolican for any questions: [email protected]. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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