Organic Broadcaster

April Prusia raises heritage breed hogs. Discouraged by the lack of specialty meat processors in southern Wisconsin near her farm, she formed a team of women farmers and pursued a grant to change the landscape. Photo by John D. Ivanko

Team approach needed to address lack of meat processors

By Lisa Kivirist

Are you frustrated with the lack of local meat processing facilities near your farm? Do you have a need for specialty processing like aged curing and services not offered by typical facilities? You’re not alone. While there definitely is an increasing market for heritage meats, the challenge throughout the Midwest and the country remains a lack of local meat processing facilities, particularly butchers that can process small-scale, artisanal meats that need traditional techniques like dry curing or Charcuterie.

This lack of processors burdened April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range, a heritage hog farm in Blanchardville, Wisconsin. “It seemed like every couple of months there would be a long discussion on our local women in sustainable agriculture listserv about everyone’s frustration with lack of processing options, from how long you had to wait for an appointment to the fact that various fillers like corn syrup and MSG and other GMO ingredients were added in without our knowledge,” Prusia lamented. “Eventually I realized we needed to take this beyond talk to action if anything was going to change.”

Prusia formed a team with other women farmers, including Betty Anderson of the Old Smith Place and Bethany Storm of the Little Red Home(Stead). Together they applied for and received a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) Farmer Rancher grant to assess the demand and feasibility of a federally licensed mobile slaughtering facility in south central Wisconsin. The goal of this project, as with all Farmer Rancher grant projects, is to develop learnings and insight that can be publicly shared so all of us in the sustainable agriculture community can benefit.

“We felt the challenges we were struggling with locally were issues that other farmers felt, too, particularly women as more of us are raising animals,” Prusia explained. The team’s project, “Developing a Woman Farmer Butchering and Meat Processing Cooperative Plan for Southern Wisconsin,” assesses what it would take to start a cooperatively owned, federally licensed and woman-farmer led mobile slaughtering unit /retail butcher establishment in south central Wisconsin.

In that collaborative community spirit of sustainable agriculture, Prusia and her team shared five lessons they harvested in the process that might inspire you to take action where you live if you struggle with the same barriers.

1. Gather kindred farmers
With a dose of strategy, you probably could form a team of other farmers like Prusia did in your local community who share your motivation to dig into a challenge and find solutions.

“Our team brought a diverse set of skills to this project,” said Betty Anderson of The Old Smith Place, where she raises cattle, goats, and chickens, and also produces various high-acid canned items under Wisconsin’s cottage food law. “April drives the big picture vision especially with her existing industry contacts to the project, Bethany adds in her writing skills along with a science background, and I bring my bookkeeping background and organizational skill set.”

When you have such a team and an identified problem, consider applying for a North Central SARE Farmer Rancher Grant, which can be for up to $27,000 for a group of three or more farmer team members. The call for proposals will officially come out in August with proposals due early December and funding decisions made in February. The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI) offers free grant advising resource to help you in developing your idea and application.

“SARE Farmer Rancher grants provide opportunities for farmers to research challenging issues and find solutions that can then be helpful to other farmers,” explained Beth Nelson, Director of Research and Education Programs for North Central SARE, which covers the 12-state Midwest region. “This project is a great example of how farmers coming together to creatively and collaboratively solve a problem and share information adds up to a stronger future for sustainable agriculture.”

2. Assess current resources
“Busy farmers don’t need to recreate the wheel,” Prusia advised. “The first step for us involved taking inventory of what information and ideas already existed.” This initially involved discussions with anyone involved with meat—from farmers to processors to consumers.

“Start the conversation with your community and chances are you are not the only one with needs who wants a project like this to move forward,” recommended Bethany Storm of The Little Red Home(Stead), where she raises goats, sheep, and pigs, and a variety of perennial food crops. “People in all walks of rural life understand, are interested in what you are struggling with and have resources to help—more than I ever realized at first.

“I have had conversations about this subject with a wide range of people, with parents and teachers at my kids’ school, with people I work with on town board and even my vet,” Storm said. “I learned everyone who raises animals, both big farmers and small, want more options. The big producers always process a few animals for themselves or for direct sale to customers even if the majority of their production animals end up at an equity barn for sale. And, small farmers can’t keep in business without local processors.”

Another initial step involved a needs assessment of area farmers. Prusia’s team surveyed producers in the area to learn about their needs the current facilities that were available.

“Our survey confirmed unmet demand from local farmers for meat processing, in particular, a facility that specializes in no-stress kill, custom cut or artisan-cured meats,” Prusia added.

3. Stay open-minded
Taking the time to really study a barrier can bring out new perspectives, providing one keeps an open mind, Prusia said.

“This project motivated me to be much more understanding and sensitive to processors because I learned that they, too, have a heap of regulation pressures and rules they need to adhere to,” Prusia admitted. She feels too often farmers raising animals blame the processor for hurdles, but her team now realizes all players involved have challenges. “I am actually now a vocal advocate for and defend butchers because I better understand their situation and know we are all on the same team.”

4. Get creative with solutions
When Prusia, Anderson, and Storm started this project, they saw it from the farmer lens of simply needing more processing facilities. However, in talking to processors and researching things deeper, they realized a core problem rooted in lack of training for butchers.

“Butchering is exceptionally hard work both physically and mentally,” Prusia explained. “It needs proper training and resources which we simply don’t have today, which leads to a constant struggle for processors to find qualified employees.”

“Butchering has also really lost a reputation of importance in our society,” Anderson said. “It used to be every town had a butcher and that was a position of honor.”
These insights led the team to realize a fundamental solution rests in more formal butchering training programs, especially to encourage more women in this field. As the number of women farmers continues to grow as the recent Census of Agriculture proved with an increase of over 26 percent in the number of female farmers, much opportunity exists for parallel growth in female butchers.

5. Share your learnings
“SARE Farmer Rancher projects like ours reflect that core collaborative spirit of our sustainable and organic agriculture community in our eagerness to share our learnings with each other,” Storm said. “With transparency and a commitment to supporting each other to succeed, we all win.”

A final project report will be published on the North Central SARE website, which provides access to over 6,500 such reports from SARE-funded initiatives throughout the country.
The trio also hosted a “Women in Meat Meet-Up” at the last MOSES Organic Farming Conference, which gathered a packed room of other women sharing similar struggles. Anderson will be at the MOSES In Her Boots workshop Aug. 2, 2019, at Riemer Family Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, to answer questions and talk about the project as well.

Interestingly, SARE Farmer Rancher projects like this one often push farmers to take friendships to a business relationship, which can prove challenging but ultimately very rewarding. Prusia, Anderson, and Storm all live near each other in Green County and often cross paths via various community connections and local women in sustainable agriculture potlucks. But this was the first situation where the trio moved from social to professional, a process they say planted seeds for future endeavors.

“Each woman on our team has different insights and talents and a slightly different way of looking at a problem, which helps tremendously,” Prusia summed up. “More opportunities for farmers to collaboratively pool knowledge and passion to solve a shared barrier will be such an asset to our sustainable and organic agriculture community.”

Lisa Kivirist coordinates the In Her Boots program for MOSES. She is also an author. Her latest book is “Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers.”

 

 

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