Brainerd lakes area stakeholders aim to take meat production into their own hands
Some in the lakes area are working to fix meat supply chains locally by growing the local meat cutting industry.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the need for more local meat processing options was made clear during COVID-19 supply chain interruptions.
Jim Chamberlin, of Happy Dancing Turtle in Pine River, said he and a group of up to 20 different cattle farmers have been working to come up with a solution to this same problem for the past seven years or so.
"We never got to the point where we went after funding or anything," Chamberlin said. "It didn't look super feasible. The meat industry is really, really complex and competitive. There's so many variables as far as production, time of year, quality ..."
Chamberlin said they struggled to decide who would run or work in the facilities since there aren't many trained in that area. Since then, the project has become more feasible and more necessary.
"There's four plants that control I don't know, 85% of processing that happens in our country. When those shut down, because of COVID situation, then the small plants got inundated and got their minimum wait six months to a year to get an animal processed. And what we found in Minnesota is that where the backlog first started was with slaughter."
— Dave Endicott.
Shortly after the arrival of the coronavirus, large meat processing plants across the country had shutdowns due to outbreaks or had their deliveries interrupted, leaving customers in short supply and prices skyrocketing. Many in small towns turned to local farmers and meat processors to meet the needs that supply chain shortages could not fill.
With so few meat processing plants still existing in the area, wait times are often months or even a year out. The local drive to create more meat processing options was renewed, especially when Central Lakes College stepped in.
In October, Central Lakes College unveiled a plan to offer courses in meat cutting, possibly providing a workforce that could solve one of the problems Chamberlin and area farmers came up against.
"We'll be starting next fall, in August of 2022," said Dave Endicott, dean of CLC's Staples campus, Staples career tech, nursing and grants for CLC. "It's a 16-credit, one-semester certificate program where students will get training and education that will take them from slaughter to packaging of the meats all the way through different varieties, also looking specifically at safety protocols, working with the USDA and customers."
The class will educate students so they can work at small or medium size meat cutters or grocery stores or own their own processing business. The program is connected with business partners who can help provide jobs or journeyman type experience.
Endicott said the program was being considered before the pandemic, but shortages emphasized the need.
"Certainly there was a problem pre-COVID, but COVID exacerbated that need," he said. "There's four plants that control I don't know, 85% of processing that happens in our country. When those shut down, because of COVID situation, then the small plants got inundated and got their minimum wait six months to a year to get an animal processed. And what we found in Minnesota is that where the backlog first started was with slaughter."
Endicott said plans initially included creating a program that focused on the process after slaughter, but he learned that slaughter was a necessary component and a major factor in supply chain shortages.
" We have somewhere around 10,000 cow/calf pairs in Cass County. As those cows age out they typically go to the auction barn and the farmer is at the whim of the auction house where the market's at. Hopefully we can build a more stable price in the cull cow market by developing a strong product. "
— Jim Chamberlin.
"It's been 25 years since there's been a meat cutting program in Minnesota," Chamberlin said.
The group started again, this time applying for grants to get their show on the road. The group applied for $200,000 in funding from Cass County from the American Rescue Plan, half a million dollars from the Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute and $3.9 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
"Basically what this would fund is a mobile slaughter unit that would be utilized by the meat program at CLC," Chamberlin said.
The money would also fund a secondary modular unit, similar to a shipping container. Chamberlin said they do not yet know where the second unit would stay, though he hopes it would be near Pine River given that Cass County has already approved the $200,000 matching funds for the program.
The Minnesota Farmers Union would own the units and lease them to operators who would staff the facility.
The second unit would have cooler space to age 50 carcasses, which would then be processed by trained staff, wrapped and frozen. The facility at CLC would be dedicated to teaching students many different cuts, though the secondary location would likely focus on slaughtering "cull" cows. That is, cows that are possibly less desirable for steaks and roasts because of their age or weight.
Traditionally, area farmers have many of these cows, which are worth less than other beef cattle and often are sold to become ground beef. So the second facility would focus on production of hamburger.
Initial business plans were for a facility with five employees processing 500 cows per year, though that was not at maximum capacity.
"We found, talking to producers and through our past research, the ground beef market is kind of the low hanging fruit," Chamberlin said. "It can utilize cull cows, which we have a lot of in Cass County. We have somewhere around 10,000 cow/calf pairs in Cass County. As those cows age out they typically go to the auction barn and the farmer is at the whim of the auction house where the market's at. Hopefully we can build a more stable price in the cull cow market by developing a strong product."
"That would benefit everybody just to find a place for all the cull cows aside from taking them to the sales barn," said Lance Bragstad, an area farmer. "They could possibly sell them to the mobile slaughtering unit to be processed for the local community, schools or whatever. I've been going to the meetings and that seems to be the sweet spot. Every year farmers have so many cows they're going to be pulling out of their herd. Either they aren't pregnant or they're getting old so they go basically burger."
" Getting the time slots at our local processing plants around here is getting challenging, especially after the pandemic."
— Lance Bragstad.
This model could benefit many. For one, though beef prices are currently high, cattle ranchers are not benefiting from those prices. Much of the markup in price is made after the cow leaves the farm, either at the whim of the meat processors or food industry companies.
As a result, this new facility could provide higher profit for the local farmers and lower prices for consumers by better controlling the prices locally and cutting out the middle men.
"I would hope it would be better for the farmers and hopefully it would provide a good product for the community too," Bragstad said. "Maybe some people would know their beef is coming from a relatively local area."
"Instead of reading the stories about how many pigs or whatever were just thrown to the wayside because it couldn't get them in, or being sold on pennies to the dollar to the detriment of the farmer, we can hopefully help with that," Endicott said.
Endicott said the training will improve product. Some members of the advisory board that has helped create CLC's program indicated the lack of training for those who are joining the meat processing industry has impacted the quality of the product being sold.
Bragstad said Family Market in Pine River has shown interest in carrying locally produced meat, further keeping the product local.
Creating a local food processing plant creates more local economic benefits while helping consumers to access locally produced products.
"We would build more resilience in our food system," Chamberlin said. "We would keep our products local. We know who is growing the food and we're keeping those dollars in our community and keeping farmers on their land."
The program includes ways to work with farmers toward more sustainable and water-safe practices.
"We're working with producers to improve their management and land to help them access cost share dollars," Chamberlin said. "And we're trying to build up the processing and marketing industry so that we can keep more of our dollars locally."
The focus is largely on keeping the production, and the money, local.
"We have somewhere around 10,000 cow/calf pairs in our county and one processing facility in Backus," Chamberlin said. "We have all that economic potential leaving our community."
All the kinks have not yet been worked out of the plan as some of the unknowns that have held up the plan in the past still persist. However, things have become clearer over time and new federal funding has made the project more realistic.
"There were a lot of unanswered questions," Chamberlin said. "We tried setting a high wage for the people we're going to employ. We were looking at just about everything we needed to look at. We kept it in the black, but there were a lot of unanswered questions on how we were going to market and distribute. Some of those questions still exist, but we have a better idea."
Bragstad lives west of Pequot Lakes and has been farming for the last 10 years. He owns about 60-70 animals on the farm, including calves and adult cows. He's just one of the farmers who has been involved with the project. He tries to sell his cows directly to consumers with the help of processors, but that is more difficult with wait times.
"When the steers fatten up I sell them to people as beef," Bragstad said. "I try not to sell my cows back to the buyers at the sales barns. ... Getting the time slots at our local processing plants around here is getting challenging, especially after the pandemic."
"We have a lot more industry than I ever knew," Endicott said. "I've learned a lot. I came into this about as dumb as you can get and realized we have a lot of industry in our region that is tied around this meat processing dilemma."
Chamberlin said the group will find out around Jan. 1, 2022, whether it received one or both of the other grants they applied for. CLC is scheduled to start its meat cutting classes in the fall, and around that time the group could have a better idea about the location and model for the second location.
Anyone with interest in the Central Lakes College program is directed to contact the admissions office for more information.
"We're excited about the program," Endicott said. "We're excited to be working with the different partners we've had the opportunity to work with and we're hopeful we'll have a full program and be able to make a difference for folks in our area."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.