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Inside the Schmidt Meat Market in the small town of Nicollet, Minnesota, a machine is busy vacuum sealing package after package of summer sausages, one of the store’s specialties.

Production manager Brian Schatz explains that Schmidt’s owns both a retail store, where they sell products like these summer sausages, and a processing company, where they contract directly with farmers to slaughter their animals.

On the processing side, customers have traveled further in recent years to access Schmidt’s services, said Schatz, who is also president of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors.

“It’s really increased over the past 15 years just because there are fewer and fewer processors,” Schatz said. “I bet we’re going from the eastern part of the state… to the western part of the state.”

It’s a span of a few hundred miles.

Schmidt’s Meat Market in Nicollet, Minnesota has both a retail store and a processor, where they contract directly with farmers to slaughter their animals. (Britta Greene)

At the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks forced some of the country’s largest slaughterhouses and meat processors to close. Farmers had nowhere to send their animals and fears of a meat shortage spread across the United States

Today, there is an interest in diversifying this supply chain by increasing capacity at the local level, which includes state and federal grants to help small processors grow.

But there was a big challenge, and it is familiar: finding workers. The job has been a major concern as processors consider expansion, said Nicole Neeser, who heads the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s dairy and meat inspection program.

That’s why Dave Endicott, dean of Central Lakes College, one of Minnesota’s community and technical colleges, is developing a new certificate program at the school.

“My colleagues are laughing. They call me the ‘dean of the cut of meat’ jokingly, ”he said. The program is supported in part by $ 150,000 in public funds.

Part of the challenge of attracting people to this industry is that wages can start anywhere from $ 12 to $ 15 an hour, Endicott said. The hope is that with the certificate the school offers, graduates will be entitled to much higher wages, closer to $ 25 to $ 30 an hour.

Another college in the public system is also developing a similar program. Both are expected to launch next fall.