Starting next year, two colleges in the Minnesota State system plan to offer courses in a field not usually associated with higher education: meat cutting.
The Staples campus of Central Lakes College and Ridgewater College in Willmar and Hutchinson are launching programs aimed at training the next generation of animal slaughter, butchery and processing workers.
Central Lakes is even getting $150,000 from the Minnesota Legislature for its program, in part because lawmakers view it as a way to train workers for smaller and mid-sized processing facilities that make farmers less reliant on a handful of massive slaughterhouses — plants that shut down temporarily when workers got sick with COVID-19 early in the pandemic last year.
Dave Endicott, dean of the Staples branch of Central Lakes, said there are no college-level meat cutting programs in Minnesota and only seven that he knows of in North America, despite a shortage of qualified workers. “The workforce need is significant,” he said.
A new program on its way in Staples
In spring of 2020, a handful of the biggest meat processing plants in the Midwest closed temporarily when employees contracted COVID-19. That included JBS USA’s pork plant in Worthington, Smithfield Foods’ facility in South Dakota and Hormel turkey plants in Minnesota.
The situation was dangerous for workers, and it also created a backup for farmers who overwhelmingly rely on a few large slaughter plants in the region. With nowhere to slaughter animals, many farmers had to euthanize livestock and waste them — or send them to rendering plants, which kill animals and turn them into things like pet food.
The issues renewed a push among some lawmakers and state officials to expand and diversify meat processing in Minnesota by helping smaller and mid-size farms and slaughter plants, and the money for the meat-cutting program at Central Lakes College was part of that effort.
Initially, Republican legislators in the House and Senate proposed $2 million for courses at Minnesota State schools, and another $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 signed on to the bill as well.
Eventually, the Republican-led Senate and DFL-majority House settled on $150,000 specifically for Central Lakes to develop a meat cutting and butchery program, and approved another $500,000 in grants to subsidize the mobile slaughter facility.
Endicott, dean of Central Lakes’ campuses in Staples, said the college plans to offer a one-semester certificate program beginning in the fall of 2022. Central Lakes is still in the process of writing its curriculum and getting necessary approvals, but Endicott said he hopes to attract about 10 students to the program in the first year and grow to 20 or more students in the years after.
The program would teach everything from slaughtering to processing and packaging, which can prepare people to work in a range of places, including butcher shops, grocery stores and slaughtering facilities. “We’re really focused more on the small and medium-sized producers and trying to help alleviate where it gets jammed up in the system,” Endicott said. “It starts at slaughter, and then we also know we have a lot of our local butchers and local folks that are working in meat processing that are getting close to retiring.”
To help with the lack of slaughtering and meat-cutting capacity, Central Lakes was already exploring such a program before Endicott arrived at the school two years ago, and then “COVID came and it obviously exacerbated that need,” he said. Eventually, Endicott said the school might add a second semester of classes to include training in specialized meats, such as halal and kosher products or smoked meats.
Central Lakes is a good fit for the meat cutting courses because they have a 2,000-acre research farm and a “strong reputation in the ag world,” Endicott said. The college is also starting an agronomy program.
Currently, people can get hired in the industry without a meat-cutting certificate and get some on-the-job training, Endicott said. But the program is still worthwhile, he said, because Central Lakes expects students who graduate from the program to get paid more — and be able to move into management positions easier because of their understanding of the business.
In a March hearing in the Minnesota Senate on the legislation to fund a meat-cutting program, Eliza Theis, a veterinary medicine and master of public health student at the University of Minnesota working for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said she was part of a team that conducted case studies on small and mid-sized meat processors in the midwest. “Without fail, every meat processor identified labor as one of the top challenges for maintaining their business,” she said.
Central Lakes plans to charge tuition and fees, but Endicott said they hope to find businesses that will sponsor students or hire them while they’re still in school.
‘Mobile slaughter unit’
The college is also working to raise money to buy a mobile slaughter unit with help of the grant money so that students can learn how to slaughter animals with it for a few weeks each year. Right now, Endicott said they hope the Minnesota Farmers Union would own the slaughter facility, and Stu Lourey, government relations director for the farmers union, said the organization would contract with a local business to take the slaughter unit 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 is administering the grant money approved by the Legislature for the mobile slaughter facilities, said the units are similar to a semi-truck trailer and can typically handle fewer than 20 or 30 animals per day.
Skogen said the state is subsidizing the slaughter unit both to help students and because meat processing and slaughter businesses can be expensive to start up, and carry a huge financial risk “that bankers have not been willing to take on.” A cheaper mobile unit allows people to start up quicker and travel to where customers are, which “de-risks 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 have meat cutting courses anyway, and has pledged to match the state’s $150,000 grant.
Ridgewater College didn’t receive money from the Legislature, but Jeff Miller, the school’s dean of instruction, said the school’s “very robust” agriculture department, plus support from the meat processing industry, pushed them to create a meat-cutting program, too. “The overarching message was there’s such a shortage of meat cutters and processors in the region and then there’s nobody that offers training locally to help support workforce demand,” Miller said.
Starting in fall of 2022, Ridgewater plans to offer a certificate that teaches “basic, foundational meat-cutting techniques and skills,” Miller said, which can prepare students for everything from a rural butcher shop or locker plant to a large corporate job with a company like Hormel.
Ridgewater also hopes to add a second-level certificate program in the winter of 2023 focused on advanced meat processing techniques, such as making sausages, processing wild game, smoking and curing and specialty meat processing for animals like bison and elk. Finally, in the fall of 2024, the school wants to create a third certificate program aimed at teaching skills needed to run a business, such as getting federal regulatory approvals and proper licensing.
At the March hearing, Sen. Carrie Ruud, a Breezy Point Republican who sponsored the original Senate plan for lawmakers to fund a meat-cutting program, said the courses will help students who don’t want to get a four-year degree start a career and attend school close to home.
“We always want to keep our bright young people in our own home areas and this gives them that opportunity,” Ruud said. “It gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to open up their own shop should they choose, or to go work for a company.”