Wisconsin farmers search for ways around delays in meat processing

The beginning of the pandemic exposed issues in the meat processing industry across the country.
Updated: Apr. 24, 2022 at 10:04 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The beginning of the pandemic exposed issues in the meat processing industry across the country and the logjam many local farmers find when trying to get meat to customers. After two years, Wisconsin farmers say they face the same challenges in getting animals to the table.

“During COVID, we had a lot more demand for meat,” said Ducks in a Row Family Farm owner Nadia Alber. “Unfortunately, that put a big hit on our already fragile meat processing system in our state.”

According to Open Markets Institute, four processing firms handle 85% of the beef market, four firms control 54% of the poultry market, and four firms control 70% of the pork market. President of the Meat Smith Co-Op, April Prusia, says monopolization in the industry allows meat processors to control pricing. She adds the lack of options creates an industry chokepoint and months, even years, of backlog.

“It doesn’t really work well when there’s a meat monopoly happening; they’re setting the price, and I feel like it comes back and the farmer loses,” said Prusia.

For farmers like Alber, delays with meat processing meant holding sheep over the winter, which added costs for feed and keeping the ship housed throughout the winter, when livestock cannot go out to pasture. For other farmers, that wait is even longer.

“When you call the butcher to put in a date, sometimes it’s a year before you can get your animal processed; sometimes in the beef world, I guess it’s longer, sometimes it’s up to two years,” said Prusia.

But farmers like Prusia are trying to find alternatives. It is why she started the Meat Smith Cooperative in 2020. Prusia says the goal behind the Argyle Co-Op is to give farmers more agency in arenas like meat processing. The Co-Op is opening in September and fundraising to remodel a building, preparing it for meat processing.

“As we see more pressure on the farmers and then also more pressure on the processors, we’re going to see a decline in not only farmers but processors, so we need to have both come back up and have those small farmers back at the table,” said Alber.

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