Meat school

Intern Clara Ritchie from University of Wyoming breaks a carcass at Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, Mont. In the near future, Pioneer Meats hopes to work with additional interns through the Miles Community College meat processing program. Photo courtesy Brian Engle, Pioneer Meats

It was an idea whose time has finally come.

Miles Community College in Miles City, Mont., with the support of the Montana Meat Processors Association and Montana Farm Bureau Federation, just announced the creation of a certificate program in meat processing and cutting. The program will start out as a 1-year certificate and include the option to take core classes online or in the classroom. A critical hands-on component will be a series of four, 7-week paid internships at various participating small butcher shops in the state. Ideally the program will segue with a state-sponsored apprenticeship program for meat cutters and also possibly expand to a multi-year option.

For years members of the Montana Meat Processors Association had talked about the need to create a college program for training meat cutters. They joined forces with MCC, and started sharpening their knives.

But it took a worldwide pandemic to highlight awareness of the shortage of skilled labor supply in small butcher shops – not just in Montana, but across the nation. When leaders of Montana Farm Bureau met to discuss unprecedented problems in ag supply chains due to corona virus, they agreed the existing shortage of meat processors had quickly been exacerbated by the pandemic. It stood out as a key problem to tackle.

Brian Engle, owner of Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, Mont., and a long-time advocate of creating a meat processing curriculum, said the holdup has always been funding. With new monies and grants available for food processing in Montana, along with a heightened awareness of the desire for locally produced food, the time was right.

Kim Gibbs is an ag instructor at MCC and has been key in moving the program toward reality. “There is a strong desire for people with this skill set and this program fits the mission of a community college, which is workforce development and options for non-traditional students,” she says. “Many potential students won’t have to even leave their community – they can take the classwork online and in most parts of the state there are multiple small meat processors within a 50-mile radius for their internships.”

A built-in incentive of the program is the students will be getting paid while they learn, and will most likely have job opportunities immediately upon completion. “They will have basically just done four intensive job interviews at different custom plants.”

Gibbs says they will be hiring a program coordinator as well as fine tuning program curriculum. Future efforts will include expanding levels of the program and securing sustainable funding. Multiple industry groups have chimed in with support, showing this is truly both a grassroots effort and a grassroots demand.

Nicole Rolf is the Eastern Montana regional manager and director of national affairs for Montana Farm Bureau. She says, “It’s too bad it took a worldwide pandemic to get this program moving, but this is one of the side effects that is really going to have an all-around positive impact on Montana livestock producers and small businesses and consumers.”