We had an animal ready for butchering recently. So, we called a local meat butchering, cut and wrap shop to get an appointment to bring in an animal from our farm. July 2022 was the first available appointment.
The lack of butchers is not a new thing, though it has been getting more attention lately. An article in the Nov. 30 Star Tribune detailed the problem and focused on meat-cutting programs that will be added to the curriculum in two Minnesota community colleges next fall. It was also reported that interest in this type of course offering around the country is picking up.
Both schools are offering a semester of classes for students to understand the business from farm to slaughter to market to kitchen.
“The students will graduate from the schools and enter the workforce at an apprentice level and know the basic fundamentals of meat-cutting, food safety and handling,” according to Willmar Ridgewater College’s Dean of Instruction Jeff Miller.
This sounds like an excellent idea because the shortage of people with these skills and those who are pursuing this profession is painfully felt in rural America. As butchers retire, livestock farmers have fewer options to have their animals slaughtered.
Just a few years ago, we could call our local butcher shop about 15 miles away and set up a day to pick up the animal we wanted to have butchered. Then I would pick up the boxes of beef they had cut, wrapped and ground several weeks later. The next task was depositing the meat in several freezers around our farm and distributing it to other family members, employees or neighbors.
The owner of the plant, who picked up our animal himself, had often told us about his difficulties finding employees. He also spoke of the regulations that were becoming overwhelming for his family-owned business. Then the pandemic made things more complicated. We had an appointment for a beef to be processed in October 2020. In August of that year, a phone call alerted us they were no longer able to slaughter and process whole beef animals. In the meantime, a friend had an unused slot elsewhere, so we were able to have our animal processed a few months later.
The urgent need for more butcher shops and trained workers is well documented in rural communities. Our situation was not unique.
The meat processing industry has undergone many transformations. First the animals were butchered and processed on the farm by family members. What a huge job just the butchering must have been, and I can’t imagine preserving it all with no freezers.
In our local area, the Norseland Locker Plant operated from 1937 to 1980. The locker plant was a part of the Norseland Cooperative Creamery, and families using it could arrange to bring livestock from their farm to the butcher shop where the butcher would slaughter, cut, wrap and freeze the meat for them. Curing was also available. The meat was stored in one of 150 deep-freeze lockers large enough to hold 200 pounds of food. Each locker was rented with a separate key for the family to use whenever they wanted their meat. What a help this must have been for large, busy farm families living only a few miles away.
Today many local butcher shops have shut down, leaving less capacity for those seeking this service. Just a few multinational companies dominate the meatpacking industry today. Recent pandemic-related plant shutdowns shed light on this.
All of this brought back memories of my mother’s stories of her father’s butcher shop. She grew up next to it in the small town of Cleveland, Minnesota. Although I never met my grandfather, I knew he had apprenticed in a St. Peter butcher shop and then started his own in nearby Cleveland. My mother told us how he opened his shop for a few hours after church on Sundays for people who needed last-minute meat or other items for their dinners.
It seems more people wish to make their meat purchases from local farmers these days. Sometimes trends swing back around to where they started. Some of the male calves sold from our farm and raised as steers are butchered, processed and frozen in local shops, with frozen meat cuts or hamburger sold directly from the farms. Many people prefer local.
It is really an interesting trend, and I am glad there is industry backing and money from the Minnesota Legislature for the community colleges to teach meat cutting once again. The program offered through Central Lakes College in Brainerd involves a “mobile slaughter unit” which is a customized 36-foot truck that is a small slaughterhouse on wheels, according to the Star Tribune article. The $500,000 cost of the unit was approved by the Legislature.
Enjoy delicious meat. I know I don’t take it for granted now as I once did.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.