With a generation of butchers retiring, meat-processing options are dwindling for farmers and consumers. But two Minnesota community colleges are putting the craft of meat-cutting back in the curriculum.
The Staples campus of Brainerd-based Central Lakes College and Ridgewater College in Willmar are starting meat-cutting programs next fall. Both schools are offering a semester of courses for students to understand the business from farm to slaughter to market to kitchen.
"You'll be able to graduate from Ridgewater and enter the workforce at an apprentice level, and you'll know the basic fundamentals of meat-cutting, food safety and handling," Ridgewater Dean of Instruction Jeff Miller said.
The school also plans to offer a second-semester set of classes encompassing more advanced techniques, including butchery of exotic animals like elk and bison.
U.S. meat consumption continues to rise, and recent estimates predict the market value of the global meat industry will reach $1 trillion by 2025. Pandemic-driven supply chain breakdowns have pushed up meat prices, even as small cattle and hog producers complain they're seeing little benefit.
A handful of multinational companies dominate the meatpacking industry. As more small-town butchers retire, livestock farmers see fewer options, except the industry giants, for getting animals slaughtered.
"It's hard to find anyone with the right experience anymore," said Mychal Stittsworth, owner of Stittsworth Meats in Bemidji. Stittsworth went to college for engineering but learned meat-cutting from his now-retired dad, who ran the family business before him.
Stittsworth said his father learned meat-cutting at the former Pipestone Technical College (now Minnesota West Community and Technical) in southwestern Minnesota, in a specialized program shut down some two decades ago. No Minnesota schools have offered the programs since.
"That's the last generation that really learned the business from front to back — how you take a live animal and turn it into a merchandisable package, ways to market the different cuts, how to make it all profitable," Stittsworth said.
It's a workforce gap that comes up again and again in surveys of rural communities, said Carol Anderson, a Benton County farmer who chairs a workforce development board of 19 northwestern counties.
It's not just a butcher shop and meat market issue: larger-scale meat processors across the country have struggled to find workers, especially during the pandemic.
"I was working with my local farmers on this question of, how do I get my animal slaughtered?" Anderson said. "And it became apparent there was a lack of trained workers."
Anderson also chairs the executive board of the Minnesota Farmers Union, which helped push at the State Capitol for state money to community colleges to teach meat-cutting. The Legislature approved $650,000 earlier this year for Central Lakes College to establish its program. Ridgewater, which already operates a successful agriculture program, initiated its meat-cutting program with some industry backing.
A full $500,000 of the money for Central Lakes will go toward buying a "mobile slaughter unit," a customized 36-foot truck that's a small slaughterhouse on wheels.
"CLC didn't want the slaughter on campus. We get that," said Dan Skogen, the head of government relations for the state-funded Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, which is helping develop the programs. Minnesota officials said they've heard from schools around the country interested in creating similar courses.
Some in the meat business see mobile units as a way to help ease regional bottlenecks in meat processing. Slaughtering close to the farm usually means more tender meat, because the stress of transport releases certain amino acids that harden animals' muscles.
Prospective students will be able to use financial aid to pay for the meat-cutting courses instead of needing to secure an industry-funded apprenticeship, which school officials hope will boost enrollment. Meat-cutting students will be able to exclusively take those classes without any other requirements.
While the workforce needs are clear, it's less certain whether enough students will be interested to build and sustain enrollment in the new programs. Many meat-processing plants don't require degrees, giving workers what amounts to paid on-the-job training.
Stittsworth, who worked with the Washington state company Friesla to develop a mobile slaughter unit that it now sells commercially, said he hopes professional training will help rebuild the butchery workforce.
"Let's say you want to work in the grocery business. It's a competitive advantage to have meat industry knowledge if you want to work your way up the ladder," Stittsworth said. "Managing a meat department to managing the whole store is a common path."
His own business is doing well: Stittsworth Meats brats, summer sausage, ring bologna and other products can be purchased at Lunds & Byerlys and Hy-Vee stores.