Photo Lacee Sims
More and more consumers are choosing to buy local beef in the form of a whole or half carcass. This, coupled with staffing demands and inspection requirements, keeps local processing plants busier all the time. Photo by Lacee Sims
Don’t wait until the freezer is empty to call the slaughter plant for an appointment. You might be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while you wait your turn.
Meadow, South Dakota ranchers Dan and Colleen Nelson used to feed an open heifer to fill their freezer with beef. Now they feed three or four each year, enough to keep their daughters and a few other family members in beef. And when friends find out they’ve got beef, the Nelsons become popular. “We definitely could sell more if it. We’ve had to turn people away because we didn’t have enough,” Colleen said.
The Nelsons have to call Integrity Meats, Belle Fourche, South Dakota, about four months in advance for their appointments. Small, local packing plants are busy everywhere, and the industry could use more of them, Nelson said.
Julie Williams, a rancher, veterinarian and marketer of grass fed beef said her local processing plant gets busier all the time and that she and her husband Larry have to plan well in advance to be sure their cattle are harvested on time.
““Locals around here are processing a lot more of their own beef. I think this is due to prices of beef, and the fact that people want to know what they are eating.” Dick Johnson, owner of The Butcher Shop in Spearfish, S.D.
“It takes longer to get in than it used to. Especially the plants that are doing a really good job, people know who they are.”
The Chamberlain, South Dakota, entrepreneur said she plans ahead and makes appointments every couple weeks so they always have beef ready to market through various outlets around the southeastern part of the state.
But with a limited staff, the Alexandria, South Dakota, plant has occasionally called to cancel the appointment because an employee called in sick or was hurt.
Dick Johnson, who owns and operates The Butcher Shop in Spearfish, South Dakota, said his business gets busier all the time. There are a few factors that play in to this scenario, he believes, but the bottom line is supply and demand.
“Locals around here are processing a lot more of their own beef. I think this is due to prices of beef, and the fact that people want to know what they are eating,” he said.
Johnson said he works with local ranchers who have always processed an animal for their own family every year, but are now bringing in a few more, for friends and family. “I think there are a lot of people trying to eat local meat and even vegetables and other things because of the scare over GMO and other things.”
Finding good meat cutters, and employees willing to “work that hard” is not easy, Johnson said. “Some young people, they don’t want to work, they just want a paycheck. Finding meat cutters that can take a carcass and break it down, they just aren’t out there.”
Grocery stores with meat counters generally buy boxed beef from a larger packer, Johnson said, and breaking down those cuts of beef is less physically demanding.
“This boxed beef is too easy,” Johnson said.
Processing at the local level is becoming a lost art, he said.
Dr. Oedekoven, South Dakota’s state veterinarian who oversees the state meat inspection program under the Animal Industry Board, also recognizes industry challenges. “We are seeing an aging ownership workforce in that business. The younger generation isn’t running out to take ownership in it. It calls for long hours and hard work.”
Even so, demand for local beef continues to grow, Oedekoven said, as evidenced by requests for more “inspection days” by some of the state-inspected plants, which they supply “as quickly as we can.” Few plants need a state inspector every day — most schedule their harvesting on certain days when the inspector plans to be there. South Dakota is one of 27 states with such a program.
Going against the grain, Justin Augare bought the local processing plant in Mott, North Dakota, four years ago at the age of 32. He also finds challenges in hiring good employees and said a subsidized training program could be useful, and acknowledges that processing whole carcasses is becoming a “dying art.” He listed four plants around the region that had recently closed shop, which drives more business his way.
“I’ve had a lot of new customers, but I don’t know if they are coming from other shops. A lot of people would rather have local beef than to order a USDA-inspected half carcass and have it shipped in.
“Right now I’m at my capacity. We can do three per day. I don’t have freezer space to do anymore, I’d have to add on to my building and I can’t afford it.”
Augare operates a “custom exempt” plant which means he doesn’t slaughter and process animals for sale, but rather for the owner. Any meat he sells must be federally inspected, and is purchased from a packer out of state. In order to process and sell local beef, he would need to make arrangements for a federal inspector, which is expensive, he said.
“I’d have to have an other bathroom and office just for the inspector. It would be nice to have one here so my customers could buy local beef, but I can’t afford it right now. I have a lot of people ask about getting local beef and I have to explain to them that I don’t have the ability to have a federal inspector.”
Some kind of grant program to help owners of small plants renovate facilities in order to accommodate a federal inspector would be helpful, he said. Funding to help teach potential employees the trade could be useful too, he said, since mistakes in the business tend to be expensive.
“I’m usually paying for animals that we messed up. That is a costly deal,” Augare said.
Employee turnover is high, especially operating in close proximity to the oil field, and Augare has a “whole different crew” than six months ago.
While he enjoys his work, there are easier ways to make a living, Augare, who previously worked in the North Dakota oilfield, said.
“I thought oilfield work was easier than this. If mistakes were made, they were well funded enough to fix it. With little mom and pop shops like mine, mistakes can be costly.”
Back in Spearfish, Johnson’s business is about half custom slaughter and half retail. Because his is a processing, not a slaughter plant, customers can kill an animal at home and bring it for slaughter, or he will make arrangements to drop the animal at Sturgis Meats, who slaughters for his plant.
The Butcher Shop is a state-inspected plant so he can sell beef within South Dakota border, and he does. Johnson doesn’t believe he’s competing on a level playing field with “the big packers.” Federal regulations do not allow state inspected meat to be sold across state lines, even though the inspection protocol is at least equal to federal.
“They want us all out of business. They get laws in place to keep hindering us. You can ask the state inspectors. These small plants are more clean and sanitary than big packing houses.”
Dr. Oedekoven recognizes the problem, too.
“Canada and Mexico apply through the same process that South Dakota does to have our program recognized as equal to USDA. But unlike Canada and Mexico, we can only sell our product within the state.”
Williams, who utilizes state inspection services to market beef through a Sioux Falls store, at a farmers market and to local customers, said demand is up. When they sell to an out-of-state customer, they use a federally inspected plant in Hudson, South Dakota.
While some consumers buy an animal from a neighbor or friend, others are looking for local beef in smaller packages. Johnson said he tries to use all U.S. product and would sell strictly local beef if the regulations were more friendly to it. “A lot of people want U.S. beef.”
He recently rejected an order of pork bellies that originated in Poland. “I told them to put them back on the truck. I don’t want them, they’ve been dead way too long. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find domestic meat. They tell you its U.S. beef but nobody will put it in writing.”
Country of origin labeling was repealed in the December 2015 omnibus bill.
— Editor’s note: a follow-up story will outline the differences between federal and state meat inspection.