After finding out he’d have to wait as long as a year to bring cattle to a processor from his farm south of Utica, Edward Meyer realized he’d be better off trimming steaks and grinding burger himself.
The only difficulty: He didn’t know how to do it.
So Meyer signed up for SUNY-Cobleskill’s new Meat Processing and Food Safety Certificate Program and, following graduation this year, he’s planning to set up a small processing facility of his own.
Directors at the college’s meat lab are eager to get started on a new project to bring this knowledge to other farmers. But the new effort, and the economic benefit farmers could realize from it, is threatened by New York state’s budget difficulties.
Meyer, one of seven people who graduated from the college’s certificate program in January, learned how to process beef, lamb, pork and turkey, from killing the animals to butchering to packaging, skills he believes will increase profits on his farm.
It will take a while to get his own processing operation off the ground, Meyer said, but he’s finding more customers looking not only for fresh beef, but for beef from a farm in their own neighborhood as opposed to packaged meat from some other state.
“There’s a shortage of processors in upstate New York. The first step I thought was to gain the knowledge, find out how to do it myself and I’d like to eventually open a small plant on my farm for myself,” he said.
Meyer sells cuts of beef at the local farmers market, but in order to do so, he has to get it broken down and packaged by a USDA-approved facility.
“It’s hard to find a place ... there’s quite a wait to get in, especially at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse,” Meyer said. “I think it would boost my profits quite a bit if I can do it myself because it’s fairly expensive to get animals processed.
“In order to try to stay competitive, it’s difficult. When I’m selling beef that I raised myself, I can’t sell it for the same price that the stores are getting for their beef. They’re dealing with companies that buy feed by the trainload and they just have the economy of scale,” Meyer said.
During the month-long training, participants learn skills like cutting accuracy, knife handling, portion control, slaughtering and merchandising.
A focus on wrapping and storage, retail cutting and value-added products can help a worker move into a processing center, a butcher shop, grocery stores and packing houses. But processing is not a high-paying job and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a growth of only 4 percent in the field up until 2018, one of the lowest prospects.
Students who have taken the certificate course, which began last June, have been looking to embrace the skill that was once passed down in families, said Clint Layne, a program coordinator at the Cobleskill facility.
Now, he said, people with this knowledge are “few and far between.”
There’s more and more automation in the processing facilities and less skilled labor on the processing lines today, Layne said.
COST A FACTOR
SUNY-Cobleskill is the only state college with a USDA-approved meat processing center. Staffed by two processors, the facility serves as a unique addition to the lesson plans for culinary arts students.
The program costs $2,995 and includes supplies such as a hard hat, frock, boning and butcher knives and a cutting glove.
The cost is a lot for many farmers, so Lane and co-director Eric Shelley applied for grant funding to develop workshops and seminars, brochures, an instructional DVD and other training materials to create a more affordable way for farmers to learn the skills.
In September, the New York Farm Viability Institute approved a two-year, $124,000 grant to support their work.
The intent is to develop outreach materials to inform farmers of the meat lab’s offerings, and to organize training seminars and fact sheets so that a farmer can get some of this information without having to take the full course, said Rebecca Schuelke Staehr, a spokeswoman at the New York Farm Viability Institute.
“They’ll have a better understanding of where all the cuts are coming from and what types of things people are using these parts for,” Shelley said. That would help farmers better price their goods.
The grant would also help pay instructors to develop and teach under the initiative, which falls in line with programs funded by the viability group, which seeks to help farmers make more money. Shelley said more and more farmers are finding customers interested in local production.
Cobleskill’s meat lab makes use of livestock brought in by local farmers. Shelley estimates only 15 percent to 20 percent of them are keeping the meat in their freezers for home use; the rest are marketing it.
“Their biggest customer is the one that wants to be able to come out on the farm and see how that animal is raised. They’ll pay more for it because they know,” Shelley said.
The upcoming year’s budget proposal from Gov. David Paterson leaves funding for the outreach initiative unresolved.
The New York Farm Viability Institute, a farmer-led nonprofit created in 2003 with federal funding, provides grants for a variety of agricultural initiatives to help farmers.
The grant funding itself comes from state and federal sources, and the recent state budget proposal, if left unchanged, would include a major cut, about $4 million, out of its programs.
Staehr at the institute said many grants that have already been approved are threatened by the budget proposal. Under the budget proposal, the institute would receive $2 million; ongoing programs are counting on roughly $6 million.
“Most of the projects are multi-year projects, and it’s money they haven’t received yet,” she said. “Everyone’s working very hard with the Legislature in hopes of getting some of the funding put back in the budget.”