MADISON, Wis. – Wis. Gov. Tony Evers recently proposed a $43 million investment in Wisconsin’s agricultural economy, to be included in his 2021-2023 biennial budget. The plan proposes investments for several programs to boost sales of agricultural products within Wisconsin and beyond. Among the proposals is a three-pronged plan to bolster meat processing. The governor proposes for 2022 and 2023 a total investment of $5.2 million in three areas.
- Create a Meat Processor Grant program to target the needs of the meat industry, incentivize innovation and expand Wisconsin’s overall meat-processing capacity – $1 million for fiscal-year 2022 and $1 million for fiscal-year 2023.
- Create and fund a Meat Talent Development Program to target meat-industry workforce development and help spur growth in Wisconsin’s meat-processing industry – $1.3 million for fiscal-year 2022 and $1.33 million for fiscal-year 2023. The governor also proposes adding one new position to administer the grant program.
- Add food inspectors at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to ensure a safe and secure food supply – $443,700 in fiscal-year 2022, and $520,300 in fiscal-year 2023. The governor proposes adding six new positions beginning in fiscal-year 2022.
There’s a need to invest in meat-processing infrastructure, said Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin ag department.
“COVID-19 accelerated and illuminated trends in the industry; it also highlighted opportunities for investment,” he said.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic some of the country’s largest meat processors temporarily closed due to workers becoming sick from the virus. Consumers experienced shortages at grocery stories so they turned to their local butcher shops for meat.
Many small meat-processing facilities were already stretched thin due to labor shortages and limited capacity. And livestock producers were discovering long waits for processing appointments.
“COVID-19 exposed the state’s aging meat-processing infrastructure,” Romanski said. “Many processors found themselves needing additional space, especially for cold storage. And they continued to struggle to find enough workers to meet increased demand.”
The governor’s proposals for the meat-processing industry could encourage investments in infrastructure. It also would help generate interest in talent-development programs. Between Wisconsin’s universities and technical colleges there are opportunities to build on meat-processing certification programs and additional programs such as short-course training or individual classes in meat-processing certification, Romanski said.
He cited as a great opportunity the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
“We also have a master meat-crafter program,” he said. “The tools are in place – we just need to infuse additional funding to make sure we’re connecting the dots and getting young people into those programs. We need to help people understand there are jobs available in this industry. But we need to make sure there are dollars available to businesses so they can innovative and modernize.”
Romanski also cited the need for state meat inspectors. There are 506 meat-processing facilities across Wisconsin, only 79 of which have slaughter capacity. There are 202 federally inspected facilities. There are 247 state-licensed official meat establishments. There are 57 state-licensed custom-exempt facilities.
“When slaughter is happening, inspectors need to be there,” he said. “If facilities modernize, expand or are hiring additional people to work additional days or hours we want to make sure we can keep pace with industry. We don’t want to slow the industry because we don’t have enough inspectors.”
Wis. Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-14-Markesan, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Tourism, said meat processors in her district that are backlogged don’t have enough capacity. But some of them are hesitant to make investments for expansion due to uncertainty about the future of the meat market. The pandemic has created more demand for locally processed meat, but processors aren’t necessarily certain the long-term need will continue.
“If you have a business that’s going to expand, you need to pay off the mortgage in the long run,” she said.
Ballweg acknowledged the labor-scarcity issue, but added it’s a problem in every business sector across the state.
“That’s not going to change post-pandemic,” she said.
Some trade industries hire young people while they’re still in high school, but there are rules about jobs that workers younger than age 18 can do. There may be certain laws that would prevent young people from working for a meat processor, she said.
Wis. Rep. Dave Considine, D-81-Baraboo, serves on the Assembly Committee on Agriculture. He has supported for many years investments in meat processing. In addition to the need for more investment in the meat sector, there are needs in the poultry and aquaculture sectors. State investments in processing also would be a way to encourage small-scale farmers, he said.
Wis. Rep. Gary Tauchen, R-6-Bonduel, serves as the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture.
“I tend to agree that we need to shore up meat processing,” he said.
Investments in meat processing would help dairy farmers in addition to livestock producers. Twenty percent of the state’s beef comes from the dairy industry, he said.
Wis. Sen. Jeff Smith, D-31-Eau Claire, serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Tourism.
“The governor’s three-pronged plan for addressing meat-processing issues is a good start,” he said. “It will take time to develop our workforce, train additional inspectors and bolster our existing meat-processing operations. When animals are ready for market we simply can’t tell farmers to wait. Feed costs and the lack of revenue are more headaches farmers can’t afford right now.”
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.