Cutting Into The Center Of Meat Processors' Labor Pains, This State Is Rolling Out A Hot Dog Factory On Wheels

In July, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $500 million in new funds to expand meat processing capacity across the U.S., funds designed to be used to help small and medium processing operations. And while details of how that money will be dispersed are still being ironed out, the funds could provide a major boost to help revive small and medium size plants.

A current meat processing plant being built in the Midwest, which will have the capacity to process up to 40 head of cattle per week and 80 hogs, is costing around $8 million to build today. A smaller facility that recently opened, which processes 50 head of cattle per week and tapped into technology to help the quality of meat processed, came in at a price tag of $3 million. 

While the money could answer a major need, it doesn't solve the biggest pain point for meat processors of all sizes today: a shortage of labor. 

“One thing that we did learn during the pandemic is that this is a nation of meat eaters, and demand was quite high,” says Bryon Wiegand, division director, Department of Animal Science at the University of Missouri.

As the pandemic caused some restaurants to shut down, the return to freezer beef and pork became a craze. And a favorite of Columbia, Mo., carnivores is a student-run meat processing facility located right on the University’s campus.The Mizzou Meat Market is a mainstay on the University of Missouri campus, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became an essential source for shoppers searching for protein.

“Here at the Mizzou Meat Market, we actually got permission to stay open as an essential business through the University,” says Wiegand. “I would argue that we probably had our best sales year ever in 2020, and into 2021.”

The influx of consumer demand wasn’t just happening here, but at local meat processors across the state and country.

“It wasn't that there wasn't product in the pipeline, but the pipeline got wrinkled up, essentially,” points out Wiegand.

And as those processors continued to be pinched for labor, the state of Missouri stepped in with $20 million dollars to help support small processors across the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or what’s referred to as the CARES Act.

“That was anything from upgrading their refrigeration to expanding coolers, essentially. The idea was that we were going to increase slaughter capacity at the local level,” says Wiegand. “That effort, I would argue, was successful in that they did award $70 million of those funds. And we actually took on 27 new inspected facilities in the state.”

Mobile Processing Unit

With $3 million still unused, Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn asked Wiegand for ideas to put that $3 million to work, crafting a grant in just six weeks.

“We started the brainstorming and went back to something we looked at for a long time. And that was a workforce development program in meat processing to help support that shortfall that we just discussed in the labor pool,” he says.

With one part of the grant money dedicated to upgrading equipment at the campus processing facility, the second piece is a project still being carved out.

“Maybe even more exciting is that we’ve ordered two mobile units, which are trailers that are self-contained processing plants for going out into the state,” he adds.

The unique concept is one he’s dubbed “a hot dog factory on wheels.” And the mobile processing unit could fill many meat processors’ biggest need: workforce development.

The reality is that we want to put skilled labor into these existing businesses,” says Wiegand. “If you go back to the mission of our institution, we've got Extension and research and teaching, and we're trying to combine the elements of that.”

Taking the Classroom on the Road 

And tapped to bring the idea to life is Ty Peckman, the newly hired director for the program, who’s just a few weeks on the job. He says the biggest challenges are combining skillsets and knowledge needed in the meat sciences industry, and crafting key lessons and modules that carve out the skill sets needed to keep small meat processing plants employed.

“We've taught several courses that cover a lot of the aspects from food safety,” says Peckman. From the basics to further processed meats, and the principles of meat science, it's really then how do we take this from a college course level, and how do we distill it to what's essential for folks who may not come in with that background knowledge.”

As Peckman works with Wiegand and others to craft a program that works, he says the workforce development program will be practical and adaptable and will evolve as the program grows.  And the driving factor is the way the program will ensure context remains king.

“It's understanding just enough of the science to why it is important that whenever we talk about humane animal handling and animal care, whenever we receive those animals, what's the importance of doing that, not only from the animal’s well-being sake, but from the betterment of a product down the line standpoint. So, we want to tie in just enough of the technical with kind of the background education to hopefully submit some of the why in things,” says Peckman.

Influx of Grants

Grants, like the one received for Workforce Development, are just one example of what’s happening at the University of Missouri, according to Christopher Daubert, vice chancellor and dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) at the University of Missouri. He says grants are pouring into CAFNR, thanks to the committed work of the entire faculty.

“The college was up 45% in shared credit awards within the college during that pandemic cycle than they were the year prior,” he says. “So, 45% is a huge increase in awards coming into the college.”

The dean says this specific grant is an example of how the land-grant mission continues to thrive. 

“It's about taking the research – the work that we do in our classrooms and in our laboratories – and taking that knowledge and taking it out to the state. That is truly the land-grant mission,” he adds.

Coming to a Town Near You

As the custom mobile meat processing units are set to be complete by the spring of 2022. Wiegand says it’ll expand beyond much more than just animal science, even bringing in lessons from the University Food Science, Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business.  

“For us, putting those on the road is going to be the first major win,” he adds. “And we're actually communicating with some of our community colleges and some of their workforce programs, so that we can have a bigger network in the state and take these trailers and land on their place and deliver the content.”

As the group taps into a new tradition, the mission remains the same.

“We need to have trained personnel in these small businesses, and they need to have staying power,” says Wiegand.

And as this program shows, Mizzou Animal Science is continues it's quest to be a cut above the rest.


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