AMES, Iowa -- Locker owner and operator Clint Smith keeps a customer “running wish list” at the Stanhope Locker. When they come to shop, he asks customers about their meat preferences and their interests in purchasing portions of beef and pork. Then he knows who is interested in a quarter of beef or a naturally raised hog and can make a marriage between that customer and a producer.
“We are the matchmakers,” said Smith. “We are developing that relationship between the customer interested in locally raised meat products and the producer. It is a steadily increasing market.”
As evident in Stanhope and at other small meat processing facilities in Iowa, consumers are expanding their healthy eating choices to include locally raised and processed meats. They are becoming more aware of local opportunities and the importance of supporting local producers. Along with those purchase decisions comes a steep consumer learning curve.
Iowa Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau Chief Dr. Gary Johnson reports his department receives calls from consumers who have had no direct relationship with the industry. “They have questions about cuts of meat and the amount to expect from an animal,” he said. “There is a whole new clientele to educate, and great opportunities for Iowa’s small meat processors to satisfy the growing demand. Iowa State University Extension educational resources are valuable to our department as we address these questions, build awareness among consumers and work with processors.”
Johnson specifically mentions the Beef and Pork Whole Animal Buying Guide (PM 2076), a product of the Small Meat Processor Working Group. (Both Johnson and Smith are members.) He says the publication will help people understand the various cuts of meat and that the total animal weight is not equal to the pounds of processed meat. Also included in the publication is information on safe storage and handling. The working group is making the guide available from the ISU Extension online store at www.extension.iastate.edu/store .
Building consumer awareness is only one aspect of the accomplishments of the Small Meat Processor Working Group, which is part of the Value Chain Partnerships project coordinated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The working group, organized three years ago by ISU rural sociology graduate student Arion Thiboumery and Joe Cordray, extension meat specialist, brings processors, regulators, educators and business consultants to a discussion table where they identify small meat processor needs and the resources to address those needs.
“The working group was a huge blessing for us coming into the industry,” Stanhope’s Smith said. “We had the support of the previous owner for several months, but it wasn’t until Arion came along and invited us to be part of the working group that we saw the right hand and left hand of the meat industry come together for us – for all small meat processors.”
As the working group developed projects, Johnson was able to provide regulatory input such as references to construction and food safety guidelines for a Meat Processors Resource Guide Book. Johnson says this reference serves as a common starting point for processors and regulators as they begin working together.
Working group discussions also have prompted Iowa State University Meat Science Extension to team with Extension’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) and Value Added Agriculture program to offer local and area workshops on business sustainability, supported in-part by a Leopold Center grant. These workshops are expanding the meat processors business savvy – helping them understand customer preferences, product marketing and succession planning, and develop and use accounting systems.
Thiboumery says ISU Extension has broadened the scope of interaction with meat processors – by expanding the education on meat product, processing and food safety to include issues of business development and sustainability. This is helping small meat processors like Clint Smith work smarter, not harder as they make “marriages” between niche meat and traditional meat producers and consumers wanting to buy Iowa raised meat products.
"Small Iowa meat processors are more than just meat cutters,” said Thiboumery. “They are building business skills and recognizing market opportunities for their products and services. This will help keep rural Iowa businesses alive and well."