Slammed with demand, Iowa meat lockers could get state help

Grants would promote small processors, farm-to-table sales

Owner Dan Wheeler works Wednesday at the center table of the shop while employees help him slice, sort and package various cuts of beef for a customer at Dan’s Locker in Earlville. He said he has orders booked through 2023. “Farmers are making appointments for animals that haven’t been born,” Wheeler said. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

For six years, Laura and Aaron Cunningham steadily built their Skyview Beef direct-to-consumer farm operation.

“We've always had enough orders,” Laura Cunningham said while taking a break from spring calving on the couple’s Nora Springs farm, near Mason City. “It would have been nice to have more. It's always been kind of tight, but it's been doable and we’ve been able to grow.”

Then in spring 2020, COVID-19 hit. Consumers grew alarmed about food shortages.

“Within three days I was completely booked from then through this April — an entire year’s worth of business was booked in three days,” she said.

Business still is brisk as people fill their freezers to avoid disruptions in the food supply chain and also as consumer interest in knowing where food is coming from grows.

The Cunninghams have orders to fill through December and could fill more if not for the lack of capacity among the small- and medium-sized meat processors they work with.

“I’ve had a consistent waitlist of 17 to 20 families and I’m on every waitlist for every locker within about 60 miles. Everybody everywhere is booked up,” she explained.

Owner Dan Wheeler cuts out fat and sections of less desirable meat while packaging beef Wednesday for a customer at Dan’s Locker in Earlville. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Dan Wheeler, who has owned Dan’s Locker in Earlville since 1984, has orders booked into 2023.

“Farmers are making appointments for animals that haven’t been born,” Wheeler said.

That’s Jason Russell’s experience.

“I might have to wait three years to get a beef butchered,” said Russell, who has a commercial hog operation near Prairieburg in northeast Linn County. He also sells about 10 head of beef a year direct to consumers who then contract with a locker to process the meat. Russell could sell more if lockers could process more.

Wheeler would like to accommodate folks like Russell, but said his capacity is limited, in part, by the inability to hire more help. He posted a “we’re hiring” message on his Facebook page in November and has yet to hire anyone.

Legislative proposals could help smaller meat processors

Proposals to address both the workforce and capacity issues for smaller meat processors are working their way this session through the Iowa Legislature.

House File 857, sponsored by Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, a livestock producer who occasionally sells directly to consumers, would make grants, probably between $20,000 and $50,000, to smaller meat processors. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship says there are 69 state-inspected facilities and 81 custom lockers, almost all with 50 or fewer employees.

The Iowa House Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee included $750,000 in its budget for the program — $500,000 from the general fund and $250,000 from the Skilled Workforce Job Creation Fund, said Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson.

Meat processors would benefit from the growing market and farmers would benefit, too, Ingels said, because generally it’s more profitable for farmers to sell directly to consumers than to a slaughterhouse.

Wrapped beef is seen Wednesday ready to be packaged together for a customer’s order at Dan’s Locker in Earlville. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

A truckload of 180 hogs could bring $200 apiece, he said, “but if you’re selling a whole or half hog, a farmer may be able to increase his price 10, 20, 30 percent.” If a farmer can brand his or her meat — another goal of his bill — “they may be able to increase the value of that animal by 50, 70 maybe 100 percent when it's sold by the piece.”

Even then, Russell said, the consumer generally is getting a better value than buying meat by the cut at a grocery store.

Similar to the $4 million in federal CARES Act funds that were distributed to Iowa meat processors, the state grants that Ingels is proposing could be used to buy equipment, rent cooler space or cover other costs of meeting demand.

The CARES Act funds helped lockers meet consumer demand when there were sudden meat shortages last fall because of pandemic-related disruptions in the food supply chain. The grants helped small processor lessen their reliance on slaughterhouses to supply grocery stores and restaurants.

Shop employee Karrie Rolfes hands an order over to a customer Wednesday at Dan’s Locker in Earlville. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig is on board with Ingels’ proposal because “what we've seen over the last 12 months certainly reaffirms to me that there's a tremendous opportunity for these small- and mid-size meat lockers.”

“They match well with what I see as a lasting trend of folks wanting to know more about where their food comes from,” Naig said. “So I think the timing is right to make a push here to see if we can support some growth.”

The bill won bipartisan support in the House where it was approved 91-0. Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judge, said the backlog at lockers “speaks to a greater interest in our state and many other places where people are looking to find a connection to local agriculture and to know where their food comes from.”

Ingels also wants to build on the workforce side of the issue. HF 857 calls for the establishment a task force to look at the feasibility of offering an artisanal butchery program through community colleges or Iowa State University’s meat science lab.

“We've talked to small lockers around the state and it's tough for them to find skilled labor,” Ingels said. It’s a “near universal” concern Naig hears about when he visits with small processors.

Owner Dan Wheeler sections out steaks Wednesday at Dan’s Locker in Earlville. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Apprentice programs could help, and two Iowa high schools have already started

In addition to looking at college-level programs, Naig said the answer may be apprenticeship programs to get people into lockers where they can work alongside skilled cutters to learn the trade.

Two Eastern Iowa high schools are on it now. West Delaware and Edgewood-Colesburg are offering a pre-apprenticeship class that introduces students to career opportunities, including meat cutting. It’s part of an effort to incorporate more work-based learning into coursework, said West Delaware Principal Tim Felderman.

Working with Fareway in Manchester, Off the Hoof Meats & Deli in Delhi and Edgewood Locker, the schools offer a foods course as a pre-apprenticeship program that introduces students to meat cutting, among other culinary career opportunities, Felderman said. At this point, it’s mostly classroom-based, but students have had the opportunity to visit job sites at Fareway and Edgewood Locker.

Felderman hopes to develop a meat cutting apprenticeship program modeled on one at Boone High School that was developed with Fareway.

The storefront of Dan’s Locker in Earlville. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Aaron and Laura Cunningham, owners of Skyview Beef near Nora Springs, have seen demand for their black Angus beef skyrocket since April 2020 when COVID-19 caused disruptions in the food supply chain. (Submitted photo)
Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia
Mike Naig