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Revitalizing Rural Minnesota—A Mobile Meat Processing Solution for Economic Growth

In the heart of rural Minnesota, pastoral stretches of farmland have long been the backbone of the nation's agricultural prowess. However, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed a production vulnerability looming at the doorstep of the meat-processing industry, impacting both economic stability and food security.


“In our region, the meat-processing industry is essentially monopolized by four large companies,” says Dave Endicott, Special Projects Coordinator with Minnesota Farmers Union. “They are great companies, but the lack of accessibility has presented scheduling challenges, especially for small- and mid-sized farmers and meat producers. COVID, and the shutdowns that followed, reduced the competitive landscape even further, leaving local communities dependent on a few players with the power to dictate terms.”


Before the emergence of COVID-19, Endicott was working in the capacity of Dean at Central Lakes College and was heavily involved with the Staples Campus’ meat cutting and butchery program. It was brought to his attention that the development of a mobile meat cutting and butchery program, supported by a modular facility with mobile harvest capabilities, might be an innovative approach to production bottlenecking in the area’s industry. But with financing always a concern, both in education and beyond, the idea was put on hold until COVID galvanized the necessity and potential brilliance of the concept.


“It was more than just a solution to production issues, which became especially clear during the pandemic,” says Endicott. “Once shutdowns began to occur, farmers and meat processors were forced to dispose of their harvest, which was tragic for many reasons. Cattle, pork, and chicken are all harvested in humane and specifically timed ways. Schedules are tight, and time is precious. So, when shutdowns occurred, all that careful planning, seasons-worth of effort, and the actual animals themselves were a loss.”


Quinn Swanson, the executive director of Happy Dancing Turtle (HDT) is a collaborative member of this project and has provided indelible support, including a financial partnership with Cass County. “We’ve been working collaboratively for years to find ways to support producers and growers,” says Swanson. “We believe we must understand and brace up the local foods landscape in our region. This project is one more aspect of that endeavor.”


The development of a mobile meat-processing solution created a way to navigate around production issues, in addition to creating new prospects for workforce development and education.


“Because the idea is a partnership among agriculture communities, economics, and education, the opportunity to provide training to small startups— butcher shops and meat markets for example—is myriad,” says Endicott.


Most of us seldom reflect on the journey our meat takes from farm to table, preferring to savor the pleasure of a delicious steak or pork tenderloin without further thought. However, it is crucial to contemplate the steps of the process in the context of sustainability, consumer lifestyle, and our support for each aspect of the meat production chain. Understanding the lifecycle of our meat not only informs us as consumers but also encourages responsible consumption and supports practices that are more sustainable and ethical.


“Each member of this team is devoted to creating a local, micro-meat culture in our region that supports every step of the process of the farm-to-table enterprise,” says Swanson.


Stu Lourey, head of government relations at Minnesota Farmers Union underscores the impact this project will have, not just from a production standpoint, but also on education opportunities.


“Our region has faced a deficit of resources when it comes to this kind of training,” says Lourey. “Butcher shops and meat harvesting are not particularly glamourous careers, but they are imperative to the health of our region. Grocers, restaurants, schools, and communities of all sizes depend on those who handle the meat we consume. We are so excited about the creative and resourceful financial avenues Region Five Development Commission (R5DC) has helped to open for this endeavor.”


And so, what began as an idea, became a means to bolster a regional industry, and then grew to encompass a workforce and support future generations through education, training, and access opportunities.   

“It has become a feat of bi-partisan cooperation and funding collaboration unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” adds Endicott. “The need became so clear, and the solution so apparent, the only issue was funding. And even that, when the right connections are in place, is not an insurmountable challenge.”


“Connections are everything,” says Cheryal Lee Hills, Executive Director of both R5DC and the North Central Economic Development Association (NCEDA). “It’s a thrill to be involved in creating partnerships that address unmet needs and inspire system changes that benefit rural communities,” she says. “This project is essentially a meat-cutting workforce training program, that we believed aligned with investment priorities of the US Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA).  Assisting the MN Farmers Union Foundation with the approach to secure funding investments from federal, state, and local levels for this project is an accurate example of what makes R5DC an asset to this five-county region in Central MN and beyond. We get to be part of making change happen. It’s incredibly rewarding.”


With a price tag of approximately $4 million for the units themselves and another $1.5 million for facilities development and operation, the funding challenges certainly felt insurmountable. But with grants written, and funding matches in place from federal, state, and local sources, industry bottlenecking is poised to shift in the favor of small and mid-sized meat producers.


MN Farmers Union Foundation (MNFU) was the successful recipient of an EDA award, with a portion of the matching funds coming from the MNFU and the remaining match funds coming from both State dollars awarded to the project through the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and from Cass County MN that were secured by Happy Dancing Turtle. “The package was complex but typical of successful rural projects,” says Cheryal Hills.


The units are manufactured by Friesla, a Washington state-based company. Two units will find a home at Central Lakes College, Staples campus, as training facilities. Minnesota Farmers Union will receive additional units—a harvest unit, a cooler, a cut and wrap unit, and a freezer. The Central Lakes College units are set for delivery in April, while the Farmers Union modules and the harvest unit are set to be delivered later in 2024.


“We are in the process of securing additional funding for a facility to house the meat processing business,” says Endicott. “While the units will all remain mobile and thus versatile in nature, they will also be housed in a controlled environment with offices and systems to help us support a USDA-approved and certified status—a designation that does not currently exist at this level in the region.”


Meat processed under USDA guidelines and in USDA-sanctioned facilities can be transported and sold across state lines. This effectively broadens the market for small and mid-sized producers in a capacity that hasn’t been explored until now. “I’m excited to see the long-term impact this will have for agriculture, meat producers, and farming in our region,” says Endicott. “Minnesota Farmers Union exists to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for Minnesota family farmers, ranchers, and rural residents. This project aligns with that mission beautifully.”


Beyond its economic impact, a USDA-certified plant with mobile harvest capabilities also serves as an educational resource for farmers, processors, and the community at large. Workshops, training programs, and partnerships with local agricultural institutions can contribute to a skilled workforce and promote sustainable farming practices.


“This project is becoming a model for other regions, and it has been incredible to be part of something with such a specific impact and wide reach,” says Cheryal Lee Hills. “Region Five Development Commission is committed to enhancing the vitality and quality of life through resilient, inclusive, and collaborative approaches. And this project checks all those boxes. We are so proud of this project and each member of the wider community in their branches of expertise for partnering to realize this vision.”


“R5DC has been a catalyst for good, rooted in central Minnesota and beyond, partnering with area change-makers to compel a greater conversation,” Lourey adds. “While we are all small on our own, we are mighty collaborators, excelling in team effort and fostering healthy communities. I love that Region Five Development Commission has helped pave new pathways for a project like this.”


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