What’s Happening with Local Meat Processors

As the weather finally begins to warm up and we roll out our grills for the summer, it’s a perfect time to reflect on our food choices, especially as it pertains to meat from your favorite farmers. The benefits of purchasing and consuming meat produced on small farms where the animals are treated humanely, fed well, and live their best lives are numerous. Sourcing meat responsibly fosters further development of our local food systems, nurtures the environment rather than harms it, increases the nutritional value of the food we eat, and best of all it tastes so much better than alternatives.  If you’re reading this, there is a great chance you know all about these benefits, and you have made the decision not to compromise when it comes to purchasing meat. An increasing amount of people have come to this same realization, causing demand for responsibly produced meat to soar. This is great news for farmers, grocers, consumers, and animals. Unfortunately, the increased demand has put a severe strain on the meat processors that handle the majority of the slaughtering, butchering, and packaging of meat for local farmers.

While demand increases, local meat processors are navigating labor issues and pressures from the dominant corporations in the meat processing industry. Local processors are struggling to find trained workers that can manage the variety and complexity of butchering various sizes, breeds, and species of animals from local farmers. The operations at a local processor are completely different from the vertically integrated corporate processors where a worker processes an identical animal on a production line. School and training programs are not meeting the needs of local processors. Instead, these programs often train workers for entry-level positions, leaving the cost to train workers to processors who often do not have the capacity to invest in robust training programs. Corporate processors also have so much market share that they can essentially set prices. Oftentimes, these prices are artificially low, driven down by being highly consolidated, paying low wages, providing poor working conditions, unsavory labeling practices, and more. These low prices are often what consumers expect to pay for their meat, and local farmers and processors are not able to cut costs in the same way corporate processors can, making it even more challenging to sustain a business in today’s market.

Strain on the local meat processing industry causes strain on farmers. Due to the shrinking number of local processors, farmers are not able to produce to meet demand—they are producing to meet processor capacity. Local processors have become a bottleneck for farmers, and the bottleneck is tightening causing farmers to alter operations. Farmers need to schedule with processors as soon as an animal is born and sometimes even earlier. They also need to travel farther distances with their animals to get them to a processor, which increases the farmer’s costs and adds unnecessary stress to animals right before slaughter.  With these obstacles, and in certain market conditions such as higher beef prices, some local farmers may be tempted to turn to selling their livestock to parts unknown—eliminating the need for a local processor as the meat is not sold directly. This diversion hurts the local processors who rely on the locals for their business. If local farmers have faithful local clients, those relationships are held in high regard, and the local processor wins as well. Ultimately, when farmers are forced to alter operations, everyone suffers, everyone except the large meat processing corporations who can easily scale their business to handle the void left by small farmers and processors.

Fortunately, work is being done to address these issues. The Wisconsin Farmers Union has enacted several strategies to combat the loss of small processors. The State of Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection began a grant program to help increase the capacity of local processors in our state. And many farmers and local groups have expressed excitement over investments in this weak link. We can do something about it, too. The easiest and tastiest thing you can do to keep supporting small farmers and processors is by voting with your food dollars. Money spent within our local food systems proves the need for increased grants, low-interest loans, and other incentives from our government to provide much-needed capital to small processors adapting to the changing market. Local processors can be supported when local farmers consistently have local markets for their meat and other products. Local people employed at these artisan butcheries are provided stability when production and labor needs are known several months ahead. In the recent past, attention has rightly been paid to area farmers, but many have not realized that meat and other food processors are also vital for local food production. The steps between local farmers and local eaters cannot be forgotten. The key to a healthy foodshed is a commitment to locals across the supply chain. The farmers, the butchers, the grocers like our co-op, chefs, and home cooks are all part of a symbiotic relationship that can provide the Chippewa Valley food security, economic resilience, and community connection.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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