One good thing that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the realization that local locker plants are beneficial in keeping the food supply chain working efficiently.
When large packing plants were forced to shut down during the pandemic, the public began purchasing hogs and cattle from local farmers and taking the animals to nearby lockers to be slaughtered.
Lockers in Milton, Moulton, and Bloomfield have all increased their capacity in the last seven months to meet the demands of a disrupted food chain.
The Schooley family purchased the Milton Locker from 32-year owners Wayne and Norma Jean Smithburg on June 3.
“They had been trying to slow down and were doing some custom exempt butchering only,” Roman Schooley said. “They had one employee, Leah Vanlaningham. Wayne and I agreed on a price and we kept Leah on as office manager.”
The Schooleys purchased the locker to give themselves the opportunity to butcher steers at a time when it was difficult to schedule locker appointments due to the effects of the pandemic on the meat industry.
“Wayne wanted us to start out on the right foot, so he taught our crew how to slaughter, butcher, and process beef and pork,” Schooley said. “Norma Jean helped with boning and wrapping and showed our crew how to package.”
Business has increased rapidly, and the Schooleys now have five full-time employees — six including Roman, who is spending 30-40 hours per week in Milton. His wife, Elizabeth, also helps with the bookkeeping and banking.
Schooley says the facility is now slaughtering on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. “This week we did seven beef, five hogs, and three sheep,” he said.
The Milton Locker is not doing any retail sales yet, but Schooley said that is definitely in the future plans. “We’re doing a major 3,400-foot expansion, and we plan to work throughout this,” he said.
When completed, the locker will have a new kill floor, new aging coolers, new processing area, and new retail meat lobby area.
“The facility we’re in now is not up to federally-inspected HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) standards,” Schooley said. “We will have to have a HAACP plan, get it set up, then qualify for federal inspection that will allow us to sell individual cuts of meat that local producers raise. That’s our goal.”
Schooley described an official kill as one where an inspector shows up on slaughter mornings, witnesses the slaughter, then returns later in the week to witness the processing of meat products to be sold over the counter.
“Our goal is to get another meat processing plant up and going for us and the community to take advantage of. Quality will be at the forefront of what we’re doing,” he said.
Schooley admitted he had thought about this project for three years, and with COVID and the shortage of local meat cutters, it made sense to talk to the Smithburgs and act now.
Schooley appreciates being able to accommodate the butchering needs of some of Bloomfield Livestock’s Iowa and Missouri customers.
A grand opening of the facility will be celebrated in early 2021 with the completion of the new addition.
Randy Welch, who owns and operates the Moulton Locker, said COVID has “filled in the dips and valleys” and his coolers are now full all the time.
Welch said he is working on getting grant money to expand his cooler space. “I have the time to cut five to seven more beef and pork per week if I had the coolers,” he said.
While the effects of COVID have brought more business to the locker, Welch says there are local people who have been hurt when his schedule is full and he has to put them off.
“I’m already pretty much booked up for 2021,” he said. “I’m booking beef and hogs not even born yet.”
Welch says he gets customers from near the Minnesota border, around Des Moines, and all the way to Columbia, Mo.
Welch processes about 500 beef and 300 hogs per year. He always reserves time for deer processing in the fall, and last year did 725 deer. “I probably did another 5,000 lbs. of boned-out meat for summer sausage and meat sticks,” he said.
Welch says people come a long way to bring deer to his locker. “We absolutely do not mix deer,” he said. “Each batch is done individually — even the summer sausage. I would never take my meat to a place where I didn’t get my own meat back.”
Welch also processes a little mutton and has even done elk, antelope, bear, buffalo, and geese.
Welch said one of the positive effects of the meat shortage during COVID was some people who usually purchased their meat over the counter purchased animals to be slaughtered.
“One Moulton man who had never had beef or pork from a locker plant bought a farm-raised animal and had it processed. Now he says he’ll never eat meat from a grocery store again,” Welch said. “We won’t know until a year from now how this attitude may affect the meat market.
“I’ve had so many people call me back and say, ‘I never realized the difference in farm-raised and locker-processed meat versus meat from the grocery store.”
Welch says his locker is a custom plant. He purchases inspected meat and ages it before selling it over the counter. “I have people coming from Kirksville to Ottumwa on Saturday mornings to purchase hamburger,” he said.
Welch is open from 7:30-11:30 a.m. on Saturdays, but says people should call ahead (641-642-3422) to make sure he has their desired cuts of meat in stock.
Hastings Meat Processing in Bloomfield
Josh White, owner of Hastings Meat Processing, said his plant has added another processing day per week to their schedule to accommodate the need for additional processing following the onset of COVID-19.
“We do beef on Mondays, pigs on Wednesdays, and when that wasn’t sufficient, added another slaughter day,” White said. “That’s given us the capacity to do another 10 or so pigs per week.”
White said since the pandemic began, he has added three extra employees.
“We were at seven, now we’re at 10, and we’ve gone to a split shift for running that many people. The first shift works 7 a.m.-4 p.m.; the second shift runs noon to 9 p.m.”
White said the public is still worried about getting their animals scheduled for slaughter, and he is booked until the end of March for hog processing. “I think we’ll be seeing the effects of all of this for another six months,” he said. “Everyone is scrambling to market their own animals.”
White said he likes the idea of being the middle man in the “farm to fork” concept and he likes the idea of supporting local friends down the road. However, the biggest hurdle, he feels, would be the investment families would have to make to pay processing costs and purchase a freezer to store the meat.
“Most families are probably not going to have the disposable assets to buy an animal and have it processed,” he said, indicating he doesn’t expect to see that much of a shift in the way meat-producing animals are marketed.
Asked about his future plans, White said he is restricted by the size of his building. “There is no more room to grow here,” he said. “If we can keep the amount of animal processing that we have now, that will be great.”
White also looks forward to the day when he can feel comfortable opening up retail sales again.
“We implemented a closed-door policy. We’re so small and we can’t afford to be in quarantine,” he said.
The business offers curbside delivery and is also offering free home deliveries while doors are locked. “We took away one convenience, so we’re adding another one for our customers,” he said.
White said he began working at the locker for Kevin Hastings 10.5 years ago. “I’ve loved this town since I started working here,” he said.