(Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on meat processing capacity. Next week's story will look at North Dakota's state inspection program.)
PINE ISLAND, Minn. — For more than a decade, Adam Bowman has faced a backlog when turning his cattle into meat. It's led him to take matters into his own hands and buy a butcher shop.
Bowman, a farmer in southeast Minnesota who's been raising Angus Simmental cattle since 2008, is the owner of Bowman's Butcher Block, a new meat processing facility in Pine Island, Minn. He purchased the shop, which will operate as an equal to facility, in November.
He's far from the only producer in the state and the Midwest facing delays when it comes to meat processing. A shortage in processors has put pressure on smaller producers and businesses who need timely processing to stay afloat financially.
"Folks are having to schedule a year in advance (with their processor), and if you are grazing or something like that, you don't even know if your animals are going to be ready," said Stu Lourey, government relations director with MFU.
The site that will house Bowman's Butcher Block was formerly the Pine Island Meat Market, which operated only as a retail market. Bowman said the goal of Bowman's Butcher Block was to put the slaughter facility back into the site, which had to be approved by the city, so the family is able to slaughter their own beef as well as the meat for area farmers.
"For a long time we wanted to put up a slaughter meat market on our farm," Bowman said. The township he lives in wouldn't allow it because it would be considered as adding a commercial operation to an ag operation.
When the owner of the Pine Island Meat Market was looking to sell the property, Bowman jumped on it.
Plus, it will bring a meat market back to the community, he said.
There are three different types of meat processing facilities in Minnesota:
- USDA inspected facilities are federally inspected by the United State Department of Agriculture, and allowed to sell everywhere in the United States. USDA inspected processors sell mostly to grocery stores across the country but also wholesale. The USDA lists 156 such facilities in Minnesota.
- "Equal to" facilities are regulated by the state but adhere to the same regulations as the federally inspected processing sites. Equal to processors sell mostly wholesale meat and can sell anywhere in the state. There are currently 53 equal to processing sites in Minnesota.
- Custom exempt facilities are processing sites that do not have an inspector on staff every day and cannot sell their own meat. Custom exempt processors can only process meat for an animal's owner. People can buy an animal from a producer and have it processed at custom exempt facilities. There are currently 241 custom exempt sites in Minnesota.
According to Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, Minnesota had a backup in meat processing that the Department of Agriculture was looking at before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. In January 2020, Petersen assigned the Ag Department's assistant commissioner to set up meetings around the state to address local meat processing backlogs.
"We ended up not ever doing that because of the pandemic, but we were already looking into the issue of meat processing before COVID, because we had this huge problem," Petersen said.
Once the pandemic hit, Petersen said people very quickly pivoted to buying locally.
"Which is great, because a lot of our farmers that sell locally use social media and it really just jumps," he said. "There's just all kinds of ways to connect with local producers."
Even Petersen himself pivoted to buying more locally and utilizing the producers and processors nearest him during the start of the pandemic. The state's ag commissioner bought chicken and pork from a neighbor he'd never met before, who was selling four to five times what he had anticipated.
"And I'll never forget it, because it was one of the first things that we bought and just kind of had it all set out in front of our house, because we knew we had to be be 6 feet apart," he said.
Petersen said another farm near him sold out of everything they thought they would have for the summer.
"So you could just see, or at least I saw firsthand, that we were starting to have issues at places like those two farms who went to try to process more," Petersen said.
Problems turned severe
When larger processing plants went down because of COVID outbreaks in the workforce, Petersen said the backup in processing became an issue the state could no longer stay in the planning stages of fixing.
"Some of these farmers had a choice to either go to the hardware store and buy a couple of guns to kill hundreds of their hogs, or they could give them away," Petersen said.
The best solution to that sad dilemma turned out being for farmers to give hogs away or sell them at a very low price, he said. But that also left processors in the state, particularly smaller ones, swamped with orders.
One of the first things Minnesota's Ag Department did when processing issues turned severe was survey all the meat processors in the state to see who had openings.
"There wasn't a lot, but we were at least able to have some ideas for farmers to connect them with openings," Petersen said. "I think that was really helpful for them, and it also helped us know exactly where we were."
He then said the state took steps to fast-track the processing sites that were looking to get online, moving the timeframe from "months to weeks."
"We added 16 custom plants, and four equal-to," Petersen said of that time period. "Which was significant."
Petersen said his agency's staff has pinpointed the current need to get custom exempt processors up and running as quickly as possible.
"The custom exempt sites work really well because you can contract with a local farmer, buy a cow and then pick it up," Petersen said.
When more restaurants reach full capacity again, it'll be more important to get equal to operators licensed and running.
"I think those direct sales to restaurants are going to be really strong," he said.
Overall, Petersen said there's reason to be optimistic that the meat processing capacity will catch up with the need by producers in the near future.
"I'm excited about it, but it's daunting and everything too," Petersen said of the meat processing landscape. "We have a lot of plans on a lot of fronts and and there's a lot of a lot going on right now, and it's definitely the issue that rises to the top legislatively for this year."
Funding an industry that needs to grow
Through the MDA's Rapid Response Mini-Grant for Livestock Processing program, Petersen said the MDA awarded 81 grants of more than $360,000 during the pandemic. The program was created to help processors and producers respond to market issues caused by the pandemic, and increase slaughter, processing and storage capacity for livestock products until existing markets return or new markets are developed.
Petersen said a lot of those funds were distributed in $5,000 grants, most of which went to smaller processors so they could boost storage space. Around 10 grants were for larger sums, going to bigger processing projects across the state.
While significant funding went to processing throughout the state, Petersen said the Ag Department understands that increasing the amount of processors is not the only goal the state should be focusing on. A lack of qualification programs exists for meat processing workers in the state, and a study done seven years ago showed that around two-thirds of smaller butcher shop owners in the state would retire within 10 years.
"A lot of the plants we looked at said, 'We would expand right now but we don't have enough people working,'" Petersen said. "So it's great to have all this grant money, but it's nothing if you don't have the workers."
One of the issues is offering a training program for young people to enter the industry. The last program of that kind ended more than a decade ago.
According to a filed notice of intent to create a meat cutting and butchery program at Central Lakes College, a community college in Brainerd, Minn., the average worker in the industry earns a $74,050 salary. Meetings in recent years with ag leaders and legislators have proven a significant need for more employees in meat production "at al levels," according to the notice.
"This includes larger production facilities to small entrepreneurs who run their own shops. Farmers have found it difficult to find facilities to process their meats in a timely fashion," reads the letter. "We have visited with leaders from grocery store chains, farm groups and small butcher shops and all have expressed a dire need for workers in this field. These discussions have brought us to seeing the need to develop a program to help fill the need in our region."
Once things get up and running at Bowman's Butcher Block, which had its grand opening on March 20, Bowman said he'll be looking to add employees. The only three workers to start will be himself, his fiancé and an individual who previously worked at a slaughter facility in Cannon Falls, Minn.
"As we get busier, we'll be adding other butchers on," he said.
With customers already calling the business line before the grand opening, Bowman knows it will get busy.
"We probably have 20 to 25 people on the list for slaughter," Bowman said a week before the site opened. "Which I assume will really fill up since we're about two months out from getting the slaughter room floor down so that we can start butchering."