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Report offers ways for Minnesota’s meat processors to replenish diminished workforce

The 38-page report offers data and stories from inside meat processors across Minnesota and recommendations to support and expand the local meat processing industry.

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Kyle Burt, who owns and operates Burt's Meats in Eyota along with his brother, Kermit, and their mother, Joann, speaks with a customer on Aug. 16, 2022 in Eyota, Minnesota.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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(Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on meat processing in Minnesota. Next week's story will look at succession planning for meat processing owners and profile the family behind Burt’s Meats in Eyota)

The first step to solving Minnesota’s meat processing bottleneck is to admit it has a problem.

Currently, livestock producers across Minnesota face limited meat processing access due to closures and appointment backlogs, and existing processors face difficulties of retaining workforce and meeting increases in demand. That’s according to a report released this summer funded by the Minnesota Farmers Union, University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Agweek Podcast: Solving Minnesota's meat processing bottleneck
Thu Aug 11 17:59:56 EDT 2022
Agweek reporter Noah Fish talks with Paul Sobocinski, a livestock farmer who raises pigs for Niman Ranch, and cattle for direct and market sale. Sobocinski was one of the authors to a recent report called “Solving the Local Meat Processing Bottleneck." He shares recommendations to help solve the backlog issue, including an apprenticeship program, increased transition resources, creation of a navigator position at the state and more.

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.

“Sometimes opportunities come out of crisis,” said Paul Sobocinski, one of the authors of the report.

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Sobocinksi, a livestock farmer in Redwood County who raises pigs for Niman Ranch along with cattle for direct and market sale, has worked as a farm organizer for over 40 years, mainly for the Land Stewardship Project.

He said that small meat processors in the state are not only relied on by farmers but entire communities.

“Small meat processing plants have a vital economic impact in rural communities,” said Sobocinski. “In some rural communities, they are the mainstay of that community, and we can name a number of them across the state that are exactly that.”

The other authors of the report were Ted Suss, a retired school superintendent and former Minnesota legislator who now farms livestock in Redwood County; Maya Benedict, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota of Public Health who has experience working as a butcher and operations manager at a shop in St. Paul; Courtney VanderMey, a grant specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture who is working to complete her masters in agribusiness, with a thesis needs assessment of meat processing business in Minnesota; and Don Arnosti, an environmentalist who has been working to support a sustainable local food system as a means to address climate change.

“We had all these partners come together and examine what can be done in terms of addressing this bottleneck,” said Sobocinski. “And thus came up with the report, and a number of recommendations.”

Growing the workforce

The report found that meat processors are at capacity, and owners are finding it challenging to retain reliable, long-term employees.

“Workforce is a major issue for small meat processors, and that piece needed to be addressed,” said Sobicinski, who conducted about 20 interviews for the report.

Half of the people interviewed by Sobocinski were graduates of the meat cutting program at Minnesota West Technical College in Pipestone.

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“That's been shut down for 20 years,” he said of the school eliminating courses in 2006 due to declining enrollment.

Author recommendations in the report include creating a one-year apprenticeship for workers, with hands-on training in slaughter and meat processing; establishing a funding pool for processors to access for trainee relocation packages, retention bonuses and training programs; and developing business transition training materials and resources.

Sobocinski doesn’t buy into the adage of “nobody wants to work anymore,” and believes shortages in workers are more about a lack of opportunity, particularly for communities of color.

“Demonstrate to people at the high school level and to immigrant communities that there's an opportunity to grow,” said Sobocinski of the meat processing industry. “Besides being an employee, you can be an entrepreneur — our country was founded on entrepreneurship.”

The author team partnered with the Latino Economic Development Center to interview Latino and other immigrant workers currently in larger slaughter plants. Sobocinski said many of the respondents shared a desire to eventually manage or own their own locker plant, but faced obstacles like language barriers

“For the immigrant community, an opportunity to take that second step after they've come to this country and are working hard,” said Sobocinski. “Including the opportunity, perhaps at some point, to become involved — not only to manage, but also ownership.”

The report recommends that the MDA funds a navigator position to help reach individuals with a desire to work in meat processing. Sobocinski said it would make sense for the MDA to seek support through the Latino Economic Development Center, which has a history of working with immigrant communities.

“They have the cultural ability to reach people, and you're dealing with language barriers, and dealing with people who might have a different way of thinking than me — a white guy — might have,” he said. “It's important to understand that, and to work with people where they're at.”

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Sobocinski said that investing in small meat processors is a win-win for farmers and workers to grow into entrepreneurship.

“Our country in the past has been culturally diverse, and that strengthens us when we look at how we can come together and strengthen our ability to bring more dollars back to our local communities,” said Sobocinski.

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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