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Local farmers struggle amid shortage of butchers and meat processors

Ray's Butcher Shoppe
Posted at 5:25 AM, Nov 04, 2021

BURLINGTON, Wis. — Local farmers say there are challenges getting their farmstead cattle into meat lockers right now because of the labor shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts could soon impact everyone shopping for beef.

At 4T Acres Farm in Burlington, Jean Gruenert sells Scottish Highland cattle directly to consumers.

"I’ve got them sold, I just can’t get them into the butcher shop," said Gruenert. "They’re not as much of a shortage of meat as there is a shortage of processing."

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Meat processing facilities are backed up - short staffed and overwhelmed amid the ongoing labor shortage brought on by the pandemic. At the same time, the art of butchery is an aging trade.

Over at Ray's Butcher Shoppe on Milwaukee's southwest side, business is booming. But, young people are showing less and less interest in learning about the important craft of butchery.

"A lot of our guys have been here for 15-20 years," said Scott Podd, part-owner of Ray's Butcher Shoppe. "Mike back there in the meat department, he’s been here about 23 years, Andy’s been here about 20 years and I’ve been here about 20 years myself."

It's part of the reason Phil Schmidt, President of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors, says groups are pushing to have butchery brought into trade schools and technical colleges.

"Maybe more people would get into it, learn more about it," said Podd, when asked about that idea. "Right now, if you don’t really walk into a place and ask ‘hey do you guys have a job opening,’ it’s kind of hard to get into. Kind of hard to start."

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In the meantime, getting farmstead cattle into a meat locker to be processed is nearly impossible for small farmers. Jean Gruenert has six cows that should've been brought in for processing this fall, but she said she has had "no luck."

Some other farmers are driving countless hours to open appointments and passing the cost of transportation onto their customers.

Gruenert says her cattle will likely end up going across the scale to be sold at more than half the value — roughly 89 cents per pound instead of at roughly $2 per pound.

"It's very hard on the small farmer and it's frustrating," said Gruenert.

And, while Gruenert doesn't sell to grocery stores and restaurants, she believes the same impact will be felt by all meat consumers some time soon. Especially as big time farmers deal with similar issues and with the holidays fast approaching.

"There's a lot of plants and feed lot farmers that, because of this, have had to take a cut back and dispose of their animals too. They don’t have the big lockers."

A fresh perspective on the challenging process of getting food from the farm to your table.

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