Nonprofits launch meat-cutting class in Virginia
SPERRYVILLE, Va. — A new program to train meat cutters this fall could ease the processing industry’s critical shortage of cutters across the state and expand slaughter capacity regionwide.
Following a recent, four-month study by the Piedmont Environmental Council and American Farmland Trust, the two environmental nonprofits decided to launch the training program, which will be offered by the Rappahannock Center for Education in Sperryville.
The nonprofits began the study after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant weaknesses in the region’s meat supply chain. After large, national processing facilities temporarily closed, small meat processors in the Piedmont region, which runs across the middle of the state from north to south, were forced to operate at up to 150% capacity. Those facilities also lacked storage and skilled labor to keep up, and cattle farmers consequently faced 12- to 18-month waits to have animals processed, said John McCarthy, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s senior advisor.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said. “The pandemic sort of brought everything into crisis mode.”
With money from the Prince Charitable Trusts, the council and American Farmland Trust hired an animal-processing consultant. Together, they visited all seven USDA-certified processing facilities — in Winchester, Stephens City, Middletown, Harrisonburg, Lexington, Bealeton and Lynchburg — in the Piedmont. All reported skilled-labor shortages and said that while they can train workers to cut meat, it also slows the processing line and can create safety issues. The job requires physical strength and precision with cutting tools.
“The work is hard,” McCarthy said. “The goal really with this training program is to shorten the learning curve. … There are plenty of people out there who don’t mind that hard, physical work. … Within 90 days, they’re making a pretty good income.”
The training program will likely be held one to two nights a week for nine to 12 weeks, he said. Six to 12 students are expected for the first class and should be ready to join the processing workforce next year. Eventually, he said, he would like to see the state’s higher education institutions take over training. Virginia Tech and Virginia State University in Petersburg are also surveying meat processors in the commonwealth.
“Nothing would please me more than to be out of this business in six months,” McCarthy said. “More than anything, I think we’re trying to create a proof of concept.”
The group’s survey also identified expansion potential at two processing facilities that could boost their production by up to half.
“This is a logical extension of our workforce training programs, which provide training in areas of high employment needs,” said Doug Schiffman, Rappahannock Center for Education CEO, in a statement. “We are particularly excited to be able to work with local farmers and meat processors to help alleviate the backups in processing caused by employment shortages.”
The training class in Virginia is just the latest effort in the region by supporters of the agriculture industry to address the region’s critical processing shortage. The Penn State Butcher School, launched last year, is seeking applications for its second class beginning in January. University officials have guaranteed that all students will be placed in meat-processing industry jobs. They also receive part-time wages for the taking the class, which includes four months of hands-on skill and classroom training with University Park campus faculty at the Penn State Meat Lab.