With more and more people looking to buy their meat from local providers, small town meat lockers don’t have the capacity to keep up with demand. During the 2021 legislative session, the Center for Rural Affairs successfully advanced bills that would boost small meat processors looking to grow and improve their operations, which is a vital step in addressing issues in local processing and supporting the growth of rural economies.
Recently, Johnathan Hladik, policy director with the Center for Rural Affairs, joined host Rodger Wasson on the Farm to Table Talk podcast to discuss how the Center is working to make purchasing from local meat producers a more accessible option for rural America and beyond.
The issue at hand
Across the country, small producers have been choosing to forgo large meat packing plants in favor of smaller-scale, local alternatives. Finding those alternatives has been a challenge. As a small producer, Johnathan understands this problem firsthand, and he uses his personal experiences to help guide his work at the Center to help other small producers in similar positions.
Johnathan sells his Berkshire hogs as direct market livestock to the consumer. He sells them by the half when they're ready to process, which gives him the opportunity to spend a lot of time at processing facilities—local meat lockers in small towns employing 10 or fewer people and serving diversified farms in the area.
“I found that I wasn't able to get appointments to process the meat I was producing, and that’s a big problem for me because as someone who relies on direct marketing, I look at that processor as my partner,” he said. “I need them to be there and be able to process when the animal is ready, and put together a very good quality, clean product as well as help with the customers’ processing instructions.”
To find open slots at lockers, Johnathan visited various small-town operations and had the chance to chat with some of the owners and employees to get a sense of what they’re dealing with and different ways to address those issues.
“That gave us a thread to follow,” he said. “We knew we needed to cast our nets a bit wider, so we contacted processors throughout Nebraska and Iowa to get the same kind of information from them: What problems are you seeing? What are you struggling with? What can help fix this problem? And, that got us where we are today on this issue.”
Staff at the Center worked with national congressional leaders to draft the Strengthening Local Processing Act, which tweaks current regulations and policy to make it easier for processors to function and to get a start. This also addresses some of the capital changes and workforce training challenges many processors are experiencing.
In addition, legislation was introduced in several states.
“In Nebraska, Center staff worked with Sen. Tom Brandt and 19 other co-sponsors to introduce Legislative Bill 324, which would make it easier for livestock producers like myself to sell directly to the consumer,” Johnathan said. “It also creates a grant-to-grant program to help with some of those capital challenges. In Iowa, we worked with Rep. Ingels on House File 857, which creates a grant program to help with some of those capacity challenges.”
How local producers operate
Many small producers like Johnathan have similar setups for their operations. Whether selling in person to local customers or online to a broader audience, certain guidelines and inspections have to be followed.
In Nebraska, there is no state inspection for meat. Producers that aren’t U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspected are custom exempt, which means they can’t sell meat in cuts or individual pieces but must sell the live animal as a whole, and then sell bigger chunks like quarters and halves.
“I'm fortunate to have a USDA inspection facility about 30 minutes from my home,” Johnathan said. “So, I’m able to sell some individual retail cuts through the Nebraska Food Cooperative. I can go there and if someone wants to just buy a package of pork chops or buy a pork shoulder roast I can sell that way.”
Like Johnathan, many of these producers sell an animal by the half or quarter, and build a recurring customer base that comes back to purchase more every nine months to a year, as animals become ready to slaughter.
“These recurring customers tell their friends, who then also come back time and time again, and it’s a great business model,” Johnathan said. “Not everyone has the ability or freezer capacity to buy meat in such large quantities, however.”
According to Johnathan, that’s only one of the impediments to small producers when trying to reach a wider customer base.
“It’s so easy for a consumer to waltz into a supermarket and buy lower quality meat that’s cheap, efficient, and probably tastes fine if you put enough spices on it,” he said. “But, I’m really interested in getting more of my product on plates. And, to do that there are some different policy changes that need to be made, including supporting some of these local processing facilities.”
Accessibility and affordability in rural America
The legislation would help increase the number of processing facilities that will allow producers to sell meat by the cut rather than only by the whole animal. If that happens, the option to sell meat in smaller bundles would be a more efficient option for those with limited funds or freezer space.
“If there's a chain store selling very low quality products at a very low price, I have to think about what I can do that’s better that will attract that consumer,” Johnathan said. “One, I’m local; two it tastes better; three, there’s an element of customer service and choice involved. I have to look at how I can approach all three of those to make sure I’m there for my customer base.”
Supermarkets have changed the economy in rural areas to the point where capital is leaving small communities because of them, but Johnathan feels that with the right execution and proper legislation, it’s still possible for small processors and local lockers to thrive, while offering rural Americans healthier, more affordable options.
“At the end of the day, it’s capitalism and it’s America, so there’s got to be a way for a business to go above and beyond, and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to have a decent amount of success this legislative session in various states, advancing legislation that does impact and improve the lives of the people around us.”
Feature photo: New legislation will help small meat lockers like Oakland Processing Plant, in Nebraska, pictured. | Photo by Kylie Kai