BOWDON, N.D. -- In an age when many small-town custom meat processing operations are closing down, a few are rising up, with the help of friends and hard work.
The latest example is Bowdon Meat Processing Cooperative, which opened Jan. 6 at 139 Warrington Ave. in downtown Bowdon, N.D.
The 3,100-square-foot facility, with $1.1 million in construction and start-up costs, is a cheerful newcomer to Bowdon's main business street -- something of a model of how communities can carry on traditions of supplying quality meat processing.
The new business is really the result of an unexpected loss, officials say.
The community suffered a blow in 2008 when Tim Reberg, who owned Bowdon Locker and Grocery, died at age 48. Fortunately, the community had a business structure.
In 2001, community leaders established Bowden Development Center Inc. to restore and preserve a school building for community functions. Faced with the loss of the town's grocery and locker, the group formed Bowdon Community Cooperative -- initially to buy and manage the grocery store.
Upon the discovery that the old locker facility was unable to meet inspections, the group incorporated Bowdon Meat Processing in 2010 after two years of feasibility studies and planning. In 2013, the old locker was torn down and ground was broken for Bowdon Meat.
'We had to do it'
"The decision to build wasn't difficult at all," says Bob Martin, a local cow-calf producer and chairman of the board. "We knew we had to do it to continue as a community."
The group sized the plant to process up to 1,000 head of animals per year, including cattle, bison, hogs and sheep. But the operation was designed to still be profitable at half that.
Ultimately, 72 people became co-op members, with a $100 membership fee. Those members bought 109 shares of preferred stock at $5,500 per share. The largest single shareholder owns 11 shares. Preferred shares offer voting rights and potential dividends as the co-op becomes profitable, perhaps three or four years down the line. Investors will receive a state income tax credit up to 30 percent of the total invested in the start-up company in the next 10 years through the North Dakota Ag Commodity Processing Facility Investment program.
Bank Forward of Carrington is the lead lender, and Northern Plains Electric Cooperative provided a substantial loan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Finance Corp. provided $50,000 in grants and loans. North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission and the Farmers Union Marketing and Processing Association also contributed to the project, as well as economic boards in Wells and Foster counties.
Martin credits Patti Patrie, one of the community business leaders, for wading through the paperwork to secure the many financing and support sources. The Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center -- a development group within the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and the North Dakota Association of Telecommunications Cooperatives -- offered technical assistance to start the new co-op.
Martin says finding qualified labor can be a challenge, but says they've been fortunate. The facility has three full-time and three part-time employees, including a cleaning crew.
Co-op leaders went to North Dakota State University for advice in finding a manager. They hired Spencer Wirt, a Napoleon, N.D., native, who will have his animal science degree at NDSU in May. He had experience working in the NDSU Meat Laboratory and has done some meat judging.
"With Spencer, that was a matter of timing," Martin says. "One family moved back from Mandan to Bowdon to go to work in our plant. We have been fortunate, and I would say lucky to have the workforce that we do. They're very dedicated, hardworking people."
Eric Berg, a professor of animal science at NDSU and Wirt's adviser, says the university produces one or two meat science graduates each year -- one of the smaller of five emphases for undergraduate animal science degrees. The others are animal production and management, agribusiness, biomedical science and livestock media. Berg says Wirt was "one of our go-to guys" in the NDSU Meat Lab, and often taught others. Berg says in smaller communities, people often want to have a relationship with the people who are doing the meat processing.
"I get calls from 'mom-and-pops,' with people who are getting older and there's no younger people coming up to
take over," Berg says.
Similarly, office manager Widicker holds a business and marketing degree from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In March 2013, she moved with her husband, Hans, to Bowdon where they joined a family farming operation.
In December, the meat co-op approached her about the office manager position.
"To have somebody like her move into the community and work on a part-time basis, with the skill she's got, is really a life-saver," Martin says.
The facility is federally inspected, but is hoping to be inspected by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture on its "state-select" program. The co-op already can sell meat to restaurants and grocery stores, but the state-select would allow it to go across state lines.
Nathan Kroh, scientific information coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, is responsible for supplying companies with information about regulatory and sanitary conditions. He says 27 companies exist in the state's 53 counties. About 83 plants are "custom-exempt," meaning they exist to process deer and other wild game for customers who aren't offering the meat for sale.
Bowdon Meat Processing slaughters on Mondays and Thursdays and processes up to five days a week, making summer sausage.
"Our customers right now are primarily local producers who want animals slaughtered and processed for their own consumption or for neighbors and friends," Widicker says. "We process the meat and charge whomever for the processing and slaughter fee." Many of the people bringing in animals are co-op members.
The facility is "state-of-the-art," as they say. Walls of the building are 10 inches thick, with insulated panel construction. It has a computer-controlled smokehouse. The drip cooler can bring a carcass down to 46 degrees Fahrenheit within 24 hours. The facility also has a larger-than-usual aging cooler.
"One thing we do that not a lot of plants around do is we age the meat 14 days, while most age for seven to 10 days," Widicker says. "It gives the meat a better flavor."
The facility has processed beef, but also hogs and sheep. It also is equipped to process bison, but hasn't started that yet.
"Right now we're not planning to do any deer," Widicker says. Wild game processing requires shutting down and cleaning everything before the plant can again process domesticated animals.
The Bowdon facility supplies steaks, roasts and hamburger to the Bowdon Community Grocery. It buys some beef and makes it into sausage or specialty products to sell out of the front door. It buys locally raised beef from the producers on an order basis for customers who want to buy large quantities, Widicker says.
Custom orders are lined up about five weeks in advance. So far, the co-op hasn't needed to do any advertising. Custom orders often come from Bismarck, Minot and Carrington, but a few come in from as much as three hours away.
The co-op currently charges an $80 slaughter fee, then a base flat rate of 65 cents per pound on its hanging weight for wrapping and processing. Fees are charged for tenderizing and other services.
Processing options include paper-wrapping steaks and roasts, or vacuum-packing, as well as the so-called "chub" processing using a plastic material for bagging ground meat. For meat sold to the public, Bowdon Meat charges 79 cents per pound more than what it pays for the beef.
"The highest we've paid for beef is $2.40 per pound, per hanging weight, so if you wanted to buy that wholesale, it'd be about $3.20 a pound." The price is based on the going market for beef, which recently has seen record-high prices.
Widicker says the company isn't able to beat the big-box discount stores on beef, but is competitive with most of the small and mid-sized grocery stores in the region. The goal is to supply people with locally raised beef, but Bowdon Meat also can supply hormone-free, grass-fed niche products, Martin adds.