Community-Based Meat Processing as a Public Good

Many small and medium-size farms are trying to survive by selling meats directly to retail customers and restaurants. The idea shows promise as a way to revitalize an economy otherwise in the shadow of huge farming enterprises. We need slaughterhouses; several good, new up-to-date buildings should be placed throughout the state to serve the growing number of farm meat-marketing businesses. These should be incubators of new business, attracting people who wish to operate meat processing businesses and equipping them with the knowledge and skills to build new businesses.

These incubators must feature handling along the humane lines suggested by Temple Grandin, the livestock whisperer. This will keep the adrenaline down in the animals, make the work easier, and win the approval of many customers who tend to be easily conflicted by the idea of animal slaughter. They must be of a size and quality to compare favorably with big meat. They must be, as much as possible, pleasant places to work and safe workplaces above all else. Pay must be adequate. The several that slaughter hogs should be capable of handling perhaps 500 to 1,000-head per week.

Lines should be discouraged in favor of teamwork. Line speeds, if lines are used, must be under strict state control. They should feature some in- house further processing, but they need to have slaughter capacity in excess of their processing — processing can proceed separately from slaughter and it is another worthwhile human activity we should encourage, scattered about in rural Minnesota.

Care must be taken to supplement, not replace, current private capacity. But our small processing capacity is getting old and shutting down. State officials could visit the facilities operated by the Lorentz brothers in Cannon Falls to see a good example of what could happen. These state-owned abattoirs could be built with bonding funds. It is badly needed economic development. This is not cheap processing. It is good processing. The time is right.

The state should build and retain ownership of these abattoirs. The meat processor associations can run apprentice programs in them that should encourage those who desire to and are able to operate processing to come forward. The facilities could be leased to operators. There should be a close working relationship with meat science at the University of Minnesota and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI). The state’s retaining of ownership could guarantee that certain standards of humane slaughter and good work conditions are maintained as a minimum.

This would:

• enable badly needed access to quality processing for farmer-marketers;

• serve as an incubator and boost for people wanting to enter the processing field;

• build business-based prosperity in central and western Minnesota;

• allow for a much wider variety of farms, increasing numbers of viable farms, especially small farms;

• encourage farms that want to market directly or through relationships to people in the rural and urban areas;

• increase urban understanding of rural issues, and rural understanding of urban issues by highlighting the communication skills that go with closely held marketing businesses;

• diversify agriculture and farming, potentially increasing the possibility of better care of the Earth;

• encourage development of small processing businesses, holding out the possibility of “family heirloom” sausage recipes that people would drive out from the Twin Cities to buy;

• stabilize and support rural schools;

• stabilize and support main street businesses.

Currently, we have a food supply controlled by giant companies that are increasingly crippled by the pandemic. We must not reconcile ourselves to one meat plant or one cannery or one fresh vegetable warehouse system controlling as much as 5 percent of the product flow, which is the situation we have with the shutdown of Smithfield’s pork plant in Sioux Falls. It is dangerous. We really don’t yet know how dangerous.

The best way to come out in a different place is to make a different first step, a step for people, communities, and hogs. Rural Minnesota needs it. Individual farmers and others have already done the difficult work of developing the ideas of direct marketing, consumer connection to farmers, and creating relationships in business. The idea is growing. The time is now for the state to throw its shoulder to the wheel. We urge action.

LeeAnn and Jim VanDerPol, along with their family, own and operate Pastures A Plenty Farm in Kerkhoven in western Minnesota. The farm raises hogs and other livestock using regenerative methods and markets direct to consumers. This blog is based on a letter the VanDerPols recently sent to Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen, state Senator Andrew Lang, and state Representative Tim Miller.