Why two Minnesota colleges are launching meat cutting programs

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Starting next year, two colleges in the state system in Minnesota are planning to offer courses in an area not typically associated with higher education: meat cutting.

The Staples campus of Central Lakes College and Ridgewater College in Willmar and Hutchinson are launching programs to train the next generation of slaughter, butcher, and animal processing workers.

Central Lakes even gets $ 150,000 from the Minnesota legislature for its program, in part because lawmakers see it as a way to train workers for small and medium-sized processing facilities that make farmers less dependent on a handful of massive slaughterhouses – factories that shut down temporarily when workers fell ill with COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic last year.

Dave Endicott, dean of the Staples Central Lakes branch, said there are no college-level meat-cutting programs in Minnesota and only seven to his knowledge in North America, despite a shortage of skilled workers. “The labor needs are great,” he said.

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A new program on the way at Staples

In the spring of 2020, a handful of the Midwest’s largest meat processing plants temporarily closed when employees contracted COVID-19. This included the JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, the Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota, and the Hormel turkey plants in Minnesota.

The situation was dangerous for the workers and also created a safeguard for the farmers who depend heavily on a few large slaughterhouses in the region. With nowhere to slaughter the animals, many farmers had to euthanize and waste livestock – or send them to rendering plants, which kill the animals and turn them into pet food.

The problems have renewed pressure among some lawmakers and state officials to develop and diversify meat processing in Minnesota helping small and medium-sized farms and slaughterhouses, and the money for the meat cutting program at Central Lakes College was part of that effort.

Initially, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate $ 2 million proposed for classes in Minnesota state schools and an additional $ 1 million to subsidize a “mobile slaughter unit” that can be used to train students – but could also travel around the state to serve farmers. Some Democrats also signed the bill.

Ultimately, the Republican-led Senate and the DFL majority chamber decided $ 150,000 specifically for the central lakes to develop a meat cutting and butchering program, and approved another grant of $ 500,000 to subsidize the mobile slaughter facility.

Endicott, dean of the Central Lakes campuses at Staples, said the college plans to offer a one-semester certificate program starting in the fall of 2022. Central Lakes is still in the process of writing its program and graduating. approvals needed, but Endicott said he hopes to attract around 10 students to the program in the first year and reach 20 or more students in subsequent years.

The program would teach everything from slaughtering to processing and packaging, which can prepare people for work in a variety of locations, including butchers, grocery stores, and slaughter facilities. “We’re really focusing more on small and medium producers and trying to help alleviate blockages in the system,” Endicott said. “It starts at slaughter, and then we also know that a lot of our local butchers and people who work in meat processing are about to retire. “

To address the lack of slaughtering and meat cutting capacity, Central Lakes was already exploring such a program before Endicott arrived at school two years ago, then “COVID happened and that obviously exacerbated it. need, ”he said. Eventually, Endicott said the school may add a second semester of classes to include training on specialty meats, such as halal and kosher or smoked meats.

Central Lakes is a good choice for meat cutting courses because they have a 2,000-acre research farm and a “solid reputation in the agricultural world,” Endicott said. The college is also launching an agronomy program.

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Currently, people can be hired into the industry without a meat cutting certificate and undergo on-the-job training, Endicott said. But the program is still worth it, he said, as Central Lakes expects students who graduate from the program to be better paid and to have easier access to managerial positions due to their understanding of the ‘business.

In a Minnesota Senate March Hearing on legislation to fund a meat-cutting program, Eliza Theis, a veterinary and master’s student in public health at the University of Minnesota working for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said she was part of a team who conducted case studies of small to mid-sized meat processors in the Midwest. “Without fail, every meat processor has identified the workforce as one of the main challenges in maintaining their business,” she said.

Central Lakes plans to charge tuition fees, but Endicott said they hope to find companies that will sponsor the students or hire them while they’re still in school.

‘Mobile slaughter unit’

The college is also working to raise funds to purchase a mobile slaughter unit with the help of the grant money so that students can learn how to slaughter animals with it for a few weeks each year. At present, Endicott has said he hopes the Minnesota Farmers Union will own the slaughterhouse, and Stu Lourey, director of government relations for the Farmers Union, said the organization will contract with a local company to move the slaughterhouse around the state to help reach farmers the rest of the year. (The Montana Farmers Union operates a similar mobile unit for students and farmers.)

Dan Skogen, director of government and industry relations for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, which manages the legislature-approved grant money for mobile slaughter facilities, said the units are similar to a semi-trailer and can generally handle less than 20 or 30 animals per day.

Skogen said the state subsidizes the slaughter unit both to help students and because meat processing and slaughter businesses can be expensive to start up and carry enormous financial risk “as bankers were unwilling to assume “. A cheaper mobile unit allows people to get up and running faster and get to where customers are, which “messes up the whole process a little bit,” he said.

Even if Central Lakes doesn’t get a mobile slaughter unit or find one to work with, Endicott said the school will offer meat-cutting classes anyway and has pledged to match. the state grant of $ 150,000.

Ridgewater College did not receive money from the legislature, but Jeff Miller, the school’s dean of education, said the school’s “very robust” agriculture department, as well as the support of the meat processing industry, prompted them to also create a meat cutting program. . “The general message was that there was such a shortage of meat cutters and processors in the area and no one was offering training locally to help support the demand for labor,” Miller said.

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Beginning in the fall of 2022, Ridgewater plans to offer a certificate that teaches “basic meat cutting techniques and skills,” said Miller, who can prepare students for anything from a rural butcher’s shop or d ‘a locker factory to a great corporate job with a company like Hormel.

Ridgewater also hopes to add a second level certificate program in winter 2023 focused on advanced meat processing techniques, such as sausage making, wild game processing, smoking and curing, and meat processing. specialized for animals such as bison and elk. Finally, in the fall of 2024, the school wants to create a third certificate program aimed at teaching the skills needed to run a business, such as obtaining federal regulatory approvals and appropriate licenses.

At the March hearing, Senator Carrie Ruud, a Republican from Breezy Point who sponsored the Senate’s original plan for lawmakers to fund a meat-cutting program, said the classes will help students who don’t want to get a four-year degree to start a career and attend a school near them.

“We always want to keep our bright young people in our own home regions and that gives them that opportunity,” Ruud said. “It gives entrepreneurs the option of opening their own store if they wish or going to work for a company.”


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