Pandemic exposed flaws in meat production
An agricultural task force and Oklahoma’s CareerTech system are sinking their teeth into new training opportunities for meat processing jobs.
The task force, formed shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supplies, hopes those opportunities ultimately will aid both consumers and producers, a member said this week. It was formed by the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Blayne Arthur.
The goal of the training is simple: To boost the availability of Oklahomans capable of working in the meat processing business to help address an ever-growing labor shortage at plants across the state.
Matt Boyar, a fifth-generation cattleman in Vinita and a member of Arthur’s task force, said farmers across Oklahoma and the nation are the most efficient in the world, doing a fantastic job of raising beef, pork, poultry, wheat and various other crops that feed people both at home and abroad.
On the other hand, though, “the state of Oklahoma does a very poor job of capturing those products and processing them here at home,” he observed.
Boyar said the COVID-19 pandemic showed everyone that the ability to get meat products from farms inside the state to Oklahomans’ tables is a weak link in a system that’s otherwise served consumers well.
“When grocery store shelves started to become empty, that hit everybody,” he said.
There are numerous packing houses that process beef, pork and poultry in Oklahoma.
Some are large, federally inspected facilities capable of handling hundreds (if not thousands) of animals daily and shipping finished products across state lines.
Others, inspected by Oklahoma agricultural officials, are large enough to handle enough animals and produce enough product to regularly sell finished meats to retail consumers inside of Oklahoma.
Still others are smaller custom operations, which only are capable of handling a half dozen or so animals weekly.
Those operators, also inspected by state officials, cater to the needs of individual producers or other direct customers who are looking to stock their freezers with a few-months’ supply of meat.
Regardless of size or customer bases, they all share a common need of having a work-ready population capable of keeping supplies flowing — even when the system finds itself out of whack.
What’s on the table
CareerTech is offering three self-paced, affordable online courses to students as meat processing appetizers as it formulates plans to reintroduce meat harvesting training into its curriculum.
The courses offer American Meat Science Association certified training in food safety and science, which provides individuals with an in-depth knowledge of food safety procedures and standards necessary to thrive in the food industry, meat evaluation, which provides individuals with needed knowledge for entering fields related to the meat animal industry including production and processing, and meat selection and cookery, which gives individuals the knowledge and skills needed to thrive within the restaurant and culinary industries.
Each course costs $75.
Marcie Mack, Career Tech’s state director, said the educational program established those courses after meeting with the task force.
“The initial phase will be online to help students get their foot in the door,” Mack said. “They will have access to that particular curriculum on a 24-hour, seven-day a week basis.
“As it continues to grow, we will go in and customize the curriculum further to meet more specific industry needs.
“Eventually, we will move to in-person classes for courses such as carcass harvesting.”
She noted the system previously had operated a carcass harvesting program at the Western Technology Center in Burns Flat, and at a skills center program at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester.
An online curriculum component in the field is new for CareerTech, she noted.
Appointed and elected officials applauded CareerTech’s plans.
“This is an exciting day for the Oklahoma meat processing sector because this solves problems across the board,” Arthur said earlier this week, after CareerTech announced the courses.
“A lot of times, we just address one piece of something, but this provides a solution to both our producers and consumers. A lot of our custom processors need a skilled workforce to expand their capacities.
“CareerTech,” she continued, “did a great job of pulling together some curriculum to get people interested in that career field.”
State Reps. Ty Burns, R-Pawnee, and Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, also were excited by the announcement, noting they hoped increased training opportunities might one day help clear a processing backlog for Oklahoma cattle producers by creating more opportunities for custom processors to produce meat for local ranchers, allowing Oklahoma consumers to buy more local products.
“I’m hoping this will fill the demand for meat inspectors and promote small butcher shops throughout our state,” Burns said.
Hilbert agreed, noting the training gives Oklahomans an opportunity to join a career field “that will allow them to earn a good income to support themselves and their families.”
Both Boyar and Dan Childs, a senior agricultural economist at the Noble Research Institute, describe meat processing as a skilled profession typically passed down from generation to generation.
Childs, also a cattle producer, said he has developed lengthy relationships with operators of smaller custom processing facilities on both sides of the Red River over the course of his career.
Cattle producers and rural Oklahomans, he said, often have used custom processing facilities to harvest animals to obtain meats they and their families consume.
Historically, producers sometimes also have been approached by acquaintances and friends with the same goal in mind who offered to acquire animals before they were sent to market.
Childs said producers started marketing limited numbers of animals directly to consumers over the past decade, given that they typically earn more per head through individual sales direct to consumers than they would if they took the animal to market.
Generally, he said that process worked well until the COVID-19 pandemic created food shortages on grocery store shelves.
Supply disruptions caused by the virus outbreak in the U.S. skewed markets both consumers and producers deal with.
Producers became alarmed as the price that packers got for finished boxes of meat doubled, as grocery stores screamed for additional supplies.
At the same time, the price producers were getting at markets collapsed because those packers, especially early on during the pandemic, were forced to reduce operations or close because of illness issues and didn't have the ability to continue processing at normal levels.
Meanwhile, consumers worried by those grocery store shortages quickly turned to producers and small production facilities to meet their needs.
As demands for animal harvesting services at smaller processors climbed, so did the length of time people learned they would have to wait to get the finished product they desire.
“Local production was on the rise before the pandemic” because of a push made by former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to encourage people to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is produced, Childs said.
“But then, when people saw the empty shelves at the start of the pandemic, they started panic buying,” he said. “It has changed human behavior and their shopping patterns.
“The demand on custom facilities grew as quickly as meat disappeared from grocery store shelves,” Childs said.
Arthur agreed, noting a lot of Oklahoma’s custom processors are booked for their services into 2022.
Childs said those lengthy waits create issues not only for consumers, but for producers too.
Producers, he explained, must carefully manage their animals so that they are primed for harvesting at the right time.
“You can make a chicken in about 45 days, and a fat pig in six months,” Childs said. “But it takes over two years to make a finished calf, ideally.
“A farmer's customer base was pretty well set, so he grew that business along with demand until he no longer could keep up.”
Boyar, meanwhile, said, Arthur’s task force continues to meet as it discusses a number of related issues in the beef industry that involve various aspects of the business
“We have a lot more questions than answers right now, but we have very, very good questions to get to the core of how Oklahomans can help their fellow Oklahomans.
“What are we doing here? That has always been our focus.”