SOUTHERN WISCONSIN – “We need more butchers.”

That’s the consensus of livestock producers in southern Wisconsin. There’s an increasing unmet demand for meat processing, especially for a facility specializing in on-farm slaughter, and for organic and artisan-cured meats.

A study regarding the issue was conducted by livestock producers April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range near Blanchardville, Betty Anderson of the Old Smith Place near Brodhead and Bethany Emond Storm of Blanchardville. They secured a $20,000 grant from North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education to meet four objectives.

  • Assess the feasibility and demand for a cooperatively owned, federally licensed and women-farmer-led mobile-slaughtering unit and/or retail butcher establishment in south-central Wisconsin, primarily servicing Green, Lafayette and Iowa counties.
  • Benefit the environment by increasing local meat production, decreasing the amount of fuel used to transport product. Benefit the environment by also encouraging practices that use local feed sources that are traceable, and also spreading manure over large areas rather than concentrating applications in more limited areas.
  • Increase income in the long term for area farmers by providing additional sales outlets and opportunities, increasing ease of processing meat, decreasing time away from the farm, keeping more money in the local economy, and creating local jobs with a mobile slaughtering unit and potential retail facility.
  • Provide benefits such as developing a model for other regions, preservation of area cultural traditions, customer education about local-market supplies, and a local meat-production model that is transparent and ethical throughout production.

About 80 producers in the Green, Iowa and Lafayette-counties area responded to the study. Together the producers annually raise about 3,700 food-production animals. They indicated they’d likely increase their business if slaughtering capacity increased. Many sell meat directly to customers or to restaurants. Some also sell meat through community-supported agriculture businesses.

“They’re satisfied with their current butchers but there’s room to grow,” Prusia said to attendees of a recent focus-group meeting in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

Survey respondents indicated they often needed to reserve a time with butchers several months in advance – frequently more than 4.5 months – to have meat processed. They also said area butchers are generally too busy to do custom cutting. That has been an obstacle to growth for livestock producers wanting to specialize in custom cuts, Prusia said.

Dennis Hoesly, owner of Hoesly’s Meats of New Glarus, Wisconsin, purchased in 1983 the business and built in 1993 new slaughtering facilities. Thirteen meat-processing plants within a 30-mile radius have exited the business since that time, he said.

One of the main issues meat processors face is a labor shortage. Hoesly said he’s willing to provide competitive wages and benefits, but added that employees would be expected to work in various areas of the operation – not just in the meat-cutting department. One person he trained refused to work on the kill floor, he said.

In addition meat processors must keep pace with food-safety regulations. Someone just launching a meat-processing business might find regulatory compliance cost-prohibitive. Hoesly cited as an example the various equipment needed to monitor heating and cooling processes.

Some of the producers responding to the survey indicated an interest in mobile slaughter facilities. But there are even fewer of those units than brick-and-mortar facilities.

Natural Harvest LLC, a division of Spring Green, Wisconsin-based Prem Meat, offers a mobile slaughter service. Prem Meat helped secure state certification for the mobile unit, said Scott Dobrzymski, field-operations manager for Natural Harvest. He said demand for the mobile service has increased; he’s been able to hire more meat cutters and wrappers.

Many of Natural Harvest’s customers want on-farm harvesting to alleviate stress on the animals, while some don’t have trailers to take animals to market. So they appreciate the service, Dobrzymski said.

Anderson raises beef, pork, poultry and goats. She’d prefer to have livestock harvested at her farm, she said. The level of stress caused to animals by transporting, unloading, use of electrical-shocking devices, and unfamiliar surroundings at a slaughterhouse is an overlooked issue that plays a role in meat quality, according to Natural Harvest.

But drawbacks to mobile services involve increased travel time for meat processors and more time coordinating inspection locations and times with meat inspectors. Jess McCarthy, a meat inspector in northern Green County for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said mobile units require more driving and scheduling time for inspection.

Prusia and Andersen plan to continue their research on opportunities for local meat processors and funding. They also plan to create outreach materials to help inspire and guide other women to take leadership roles in meat processing.

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. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.