The state spent $5 million to train new workers capable of preparing beef, pork, and other meats to sell to the public after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, (DATCP), and Gov. Tony Evers announced the program Tuesday, funded from Wisconsin’s share of the federal pandemic relief program enacted in March, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
The money will be used to attract and provide financial support to meat processing students in Wisconsin and to help the processing industry connect with prospective employees.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau also lauded the program for its use of incentives “to encourage students to pursue careers in meat processing.”
The pandemic infected meat processors across Wisconsin and other states from the beginning of 2020. Because they work in close quarters, many employees in large commercial processing companies were affected by the disease. At the same time, concentration among larger packing companies has squeezed local, smaller processers, with the pandemic adding to the pressure on them, according to the Wisconsin Farmers Union in a 2021 report.
“This really was a problem before the pandemic,” says the Farmers Union’s government relations director, Nick Levendofsky. “The pandemic just exacerbated it.”
It has been difficult for processors to hire more people. “If our local processors don’t have enough labor, they can’t keep up and don’t have the ability to process as many animals as farmers need,” says Danielle Endvick, who raises beef cattle with her husband and also is communications director for the Farmers Union.
Endvicks farmers see the potential to gain more control over the cost of their meat by leveraging the consumer interest in locally-raised meat and the ability to sell directly. But the problem of shortages in processing has hampered this vision.
To ensure that their animals are processed on schedule, farmers who raise meat livestock must make reservations with processors at least a year in advance. And if they can’t slaughter and process them when they had planned, they have to continue feeding them at extra expense.
April Prusia, a Blanchardville hog farmer, planned to sell 12 young pigs to three potential buyers in April 2020 who were planning to raise them for slaughter.
The customers had to cancel the sale because “they couldn’t get a butcher date,” Prusia says. “All of a sudden I have 12 extra pigs.”
She had been able to get her own hogs scheduled for the butcher a year in advance, but she had to keep the other animals from the sales that fell through because she couldn’t schedule processing dates for them, either.
The funds awarded Tuesday were nearly twice the $2.6 million that Evers had included in the state’s 2021-23 budget for a “meat talent program” to help expand Wisconsin’s meat processing workforce, but that the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee omitted from its final version of the budget.
Announcing the $5 million in training assistance on Tuesday, Evers said the money “will reduce barriers to careers in meat processing, provide new opportunities to workers across our state, and ensure our food supply chain remains resilient and successful well into Wisconsin’s future.”
The program will take some time to implement. Levendofsky says that a training course for prospective butchers like the one offered by Madison College could take around a year. He also mentions that apprenticeship programs are possible in the trade.
Prusia and two farmers have been working together to create a worker-producer cooperative processing company. Finding skilled workers is proving difficult. “There is a huge bottleneck of finding somebody that actually knows how to butcher,” she says.
The group recruited two Madison College artisanal-meat processing program members, thereby expanding the coop group’s size to five.
Prusia says the business will have a brick-and-mortar facility while also providing slaughter services on customers’ farms. She expects the operation to be ready to start in the next three months, initially for “custom” service that is marked not for sale, and will apply to provide processing for meat that is inspected and sold within the state about six months after that.
The project started before the pandemic but accelerated with weekly Zoom meetings that began a year ago. “It’s been quite a learning process,” Prusia says.
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Source: Successful Farming