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Locker owners tackle ‘meaty’ issues

By Staff | Apr 17, 2009

The Small Meat Processors Working Group is designed to help businesses like Lake City Meat Processing, which is owned by Chris Terry and his wife, Vickie.

AMES – In 1965, Iowa had more than 550 small meat-processing plants, compared to approximately 150 today. However, recent consumer interest in locally raised meat is increasing the demand for meat processing facilities.

For the past several years, the Small Meat Processors Working Group has been identifying practical ways to change the Iowa landscape for small, independent meat processors and the producers and consumers who rely on them.

“We have a very diverse meat industry in Iowa,” said Dr. Joe Cordray, an Extension meat science specialist at Iowa State University. “With 280 meat plants in our state, there are a lot of possibilities for people to interact with niche opportunities.”

The SMPWG is part of Value Chain Partnerships, which is coordinated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in partnership with ISU and Practical Farmers of Iowa. The meat group is promoting a variety of new resources available this year to help Iowa meat processors expand, upgrade or build new facilities, thereby promoting rural development and increasing agricultural opportunities.

“There are quite a number of projects we’re undertaking in 2009, and we want to get the information into people’s hands in a way they can use,” said Arion Thiboumery, with the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, which works with the SMPWG.

During a recent marketing and food systems initiative workshop in Ames, hosted by the Leopold Center, Thiboumery highlighted a number of SMPWG projects, including:

  • Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook. This booklet about building, upgrading or expanding a small meat processing facility in Iowa is available at the SMPWG site at www.valuechains.org/smpwg/.

The guidebook, which is a result of discussions, research and hands-on work with individual meat processors, examines areas where small meat processing plants struggle, including business planning and feasibility, financing and financial assistance, plant design, plant construction, labor, and government rules and regulations. The guide also offers advice on where to find guidance for each step and explains the resources available at the local, state and national levels. Finally, it includes a list of 10 recently built or renovated locker plants in Iowa and the contractors they used.

  • Guide to designing a small red meat plant. This new guide, which will be available soon as ISU Extension publication PM 2077, is a unique resource, Thiboumery said. “It includes model plant designs and covers topics from plumbing and electrical systems to grading the floor properly so water doesn’t pool.”
  • Poultry processing bulletin. Iowa has few poultry processing facilities, and this valuable resource provides information on the licenses required to sell poultry at farmers’ markets and other outlets, the location of poultry processing facilities in Iowa and more.
  • Beef and pork whole animal buying guide. This new guide, ISU Extension publication PM 2076, is designed to help producers educate their customers about buying larger quantities of meat, including whole animals. The guide defines terms including live weight, carcass weight and take-home weight; lists freezer space requirements for whole animals; explains proper meat handling and cooking; and more.

“This is an excellent resource for beef and pork marketers, who can use it as a marketing tool with their customers,” said Thiboumery, who noted that advance orders are being taken for this publication.

In addition, Thiboumery noted that $500 mini grants are available for Iowa meat processors who want to host an open house at their facility. For more information, contact Thiboumery at (515) 294-2882 or arion@iastate.edu.

Vocational meat processing programs

Since labor is one of the biggest challenges facing Iowa’s smaller meat-processing plants, leaders like Gary Sandholm, with Webster City Area Development, are looking at new solutions through Iowa’s network of 15 community colleges.

“We saw the issues created by a lack of skilled labor and the need to replace retiring locker owners,” said Sandholm, who added that the Webster City group is part of the Mid-Iowa Growth Partnership, which covers a nine-county area in north-central Iowa and includes a value-added ag committee.

“We started working with Thiboumery and the Leopold Center to brainstorm options for a vocational meat processing program in Iowa.”

To begin the process, Iowa meat processors will be interviewed starting June 1 to determine what kind of skilled labor they need and how these people can be trained, either through apprenticeship programs, courses at community colleges or other options. “The goal is to help meat processors work smarter, not harder, and we want to get more young people involved in the business,” Sandholm said.

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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