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Fixing Minnesota’s meat processing industry is a work in progress

Meat cutting courses at Ridgewater College and Central Lakes College are helping train the next generation of meat processing professionals, but more work is needed to build a more resilient system.

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Paul Sobocinski speaks during a panel discussion on the meat processing industry in Minnesota held during the Minnesota Farmers Union annual convention on Nov. 18, 2022 in Minneapolis. The panel featured, from left, Sophia Thommes, Jess Feierabend, Sobcocinski and Michelle Medina.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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MINNEAPOLIS — Since large packing plants shut down during the height of the pandemic, a broad array of partners have been working to build a more distributed and resilient system for meat processing in the state. That includes Minnesota colleges now offering courses for meat processing as well as business skills to take over current businesses.

Some of those partners spoke recently on a panel discussion part of the Minnesota Farmers Union convention on Nov. 18.

One of the panel guests was Paul Sobocinski, one of the authors to a report released this summer funded by the Minnesota Farmers Union, University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on the meat processing bottlenecks in the state.

The report compiled responses from interviews with 57 meat processors in rural Minnesota, with respondents providing information about their opinions and attitudes on how to bolster the meat processing industry and its diminished workforce. The report includes input from potential workers as well as business owners.

Sobocinski, a livestock farmer himself in Redwood County who raises pigs for Niman Ranch along with cattle for direct and market sale, said the authors found that many of the people still working in the industry were graduates of the meat cutting program at Minnesota West Technical College in Pipestone — which no longer exists.

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“If we're going to succeed in agriculture, we have to have further investment in the meat processing industry,” said Sobocinski. “Half the people I interviewed in this process were trained (at Pipestone), and it’s been shut down for 20 years, so it's no wonder we have this problem.”

Sobocinski said when they looked at the training aspect, they realized it needed to be more than just on the skills of meat cutting.

“We can't just train people in meat cutting; we have to train them on the whole aspect,” he said. “We have to look at how we can have more meat processors, rather than have a third go out of business.”

“A third of the people in this report have this problem,” said Sobocinski, pointing to his head. “We got white hair, and they're going to go out of business in the next four or five years — so let's look at how to bring new people in.”

New education options

Sophia Thommes is a meat cutting instructor at Ridgewater College, which offers an online, one-semester, 18-credit certificate for meat cutting. The online format allows the school to reach participants across the state and country, said Thommes, and the in-person part of students’ training is done at a facility near them.

“I have a student in Florida, I have students in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and various regions of Minnesota,” said Thommes.

Thommes assigns students weekly tasks from what they're learning online and then meets with their supervisor or mentor to check with how they’re doing. She also visits them in-person — except for her student in Florida, which she examines via Zoom.

“What I'm really looking for when I go visit is ‘OK, show me x, y and z,’” she said.

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The Ridgewater class — in which Thommes taught 10 students in the first semester with another 10 signed up for the spring — is structured into courses that are four weeks in length, with parts on food safety, livestock and poultry harvesting and processing, meat cutting equipment procedures, and then advanced meat principles.

She said there’s also an optional course on wild game processing, which she’s currently teaching, which she said works really well with deer season in the Midwest.

Thommes said the class is just a beginning meat cutting course, and the college is in the process of creating an advanced meat cutting class, to be offered in-person in spring of 2024 at a facility in Benson, Minnesota.

“In which we'll get more into meat science, truly the art of curing and smoking, seasoning, sausage products and characteristics, and how to make each product,” said Thommes of the course.

What Thommes has noticed after one semester teaching the class is that the range of students is wide.

“I have two students who are in their 60s and retired, and who want to do it as a hobby,” she said. “And then I have students coming right out of high school who are interested in possibly owning their own business.”

Next semester, she has a student currently working for an agriculture business in the Twin Cities who asked her if she knew any business owners close to retirement who would mentor them.

“I've given her the contact information in an area where she sees fit, and she met with them, and they're doing paperwork, business plans, and things like that,” she said. “So our program was set up truly to have that mentorship for passing down business.”

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Central Lakes

Jess Feierabend is a meat cutting and butchery instructor at Central Lakes College who has been working in the industry since he was 14, with experience ranging from sausage making to on-farm slaughter to working at Costco.

Feierabend said the meat cutting classes at CLC differ from Ridgewater because they are all in-person.

“We all have to walk before we run, and the nice thing about being in-person is that we're able to slow the process down,” said Feierabend. “We're able to take each step, and slow it down to a working level, so that way, we can hone in a little bit more on what each individual student has.”

He said for the industry to really become resilient, there needs to be more meat cutting classes offered in the future.

“There's a lot of meat shops out there that have people who are looking to retire, and nobody to follow up behind them,” said Feierabend. “Not only the knowledge of how to cut meat and process meat is needed, and it doesn't stop there — you have to be able to know what a profit-loss statement is, and I always tell my students if you have a boat and it has a leak in it, you got to know where to find the leak, because you're not going to run a business for very long if your boat is leaking a bunch of water.”

Michelle Medina, government relations director with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said her advice to those in the meat processing industry — or to those looking to break into it — is to apply to a number of grants available through MDA.

“The first thing I'll say is, when you are applying for grants through the department, get your draft pages in early,” she said. “If the cutoff is 3:50 and you get something in at 4:01, it’s not considered.”

She advised people to call the department and get answers for their questions.

“Our team is great at helping answer questions when you're working through your cases, so use that resource for sure,” she said.

Her other advice was to lobby.

“Come to the Capitol. Share your stories, because I can tell those stories until I'm blue in the face, but they listen to farmers and processors much more than lobbyists,” she said. “We need you guys to share your stories and show that there is such a need, because there's a lot going on this upcoming session, and there's about a third of the legislators that are new — they've never served before, and even less are from rural Minnesota.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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