Where do smaller meat lockers fit in a post-pandemic space?

Small and mid-size meat processors experienced demand resurgence during the pandemic. Overnight lockers across the state of Kansas and elsewhere were inundated with calls to take animals for processing, with dates booked well into 2022. But will that demand last long enough for them to implement measures to expand capacity and make a return on the investment?

This question was highlighted during the 2021 Kansas State University Cattlemen’s Day, March 4. Liz Boyle, K-State Extension meat science specialist, said the number of small meat plants has steadily declined over the last 25 years, for a variety of reasons, including retirements, the cost of operations, insurance costs and a shortage of skilled labor. And new plants aren’t taking their places because the capital investment is hard to justify long term, she said.

Boyle reviewed a list of small plants in the state and most, if not all, are running at capacity and have bookings for animals to be processed on into the first half of 2022.

“Why aren’t we building more?” Boyle asked. “It’s hard to invest that much capital and not know if this trend will continue, if it’s a boom or a bust.” Will this newfound surge in demand that these plants are seeing because of a shortage of available spaces for animals at larger processors continue over the next five to 10 years? Will consumers stick to their newfound tastes for local and regionally sourced meat? It’s unknown, she said.

There are some in the state taking the chance, though. Krehbiels Specialty Meats, Inc., in McPherson, has seen a 200% to 300% increase in business during the pandemic, and therefore is increasing its capacity by 40% by adding an addition to its existing facility, Boyle said. The RAMP-UP Act, passed in July 2020, provides assistance to help small plants apply for grants so that they can improve their facilities and move from state-inspected to federally inspected status, which allows them to sell product across state lines. It’s made a difference for small processors, she said.

Of course, you can expand a facility, but you also need labor. Some plants are trying to add shifts to get through the backlog of cattle, pigs and wildlife that customers bring in for harvesting. But filling those shifts with skilled meat cutters is tough. And for quite a number of processors in the state, retirement is also looming but there are few to no meat cutters looking for work in the specialty field.

Boyle said the push during the pandemic to buy food locally direct from farmers was a game changer for livestock producers and for small processors. That community relationship was renewed between the local meat supplier and the customer. The goal going forward is to keep that relationship thriving and keep that consumer support for buying local and supporting their local meat processors.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at [email protected].