Pandemic funds sought for independent meat processors

The Appropriations Committee heard testimony Feb. 9 on a proposal that would use federal pandemic relief funds to assist independent meat processors in Nebraska.

Sen. Tom Brandt
Sen. Tom Brandt

LB755, sponsored by Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt, would appropriate $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the state Department of Agriculture for the Independent Processor Assistance Program for small and medium meat processors.

Eligibility requirements were outlined in a bill sponsored by Brandt that passed last session. Grant funds could be used for equipment, inspection costs, eligible education or workforce programs and expansion, modification or construction of buildings.

Brandt said the pandemic “greatly disrupted” Nebraska’s food supply chain. When large meat processing plants reduced line speeds, farmers turned to local processors to fill the void, he said, but those small processors are struggling.

“This created a bottleneck at every local meat locker in the state,” Brandt said. “They simply do not have the capacity or equipment to keep up with demand.”

John Hladik of the Center for Rural Affairs also testified in favor of the bill. During the pandemic, approximately 59,000 meat processing workers in Nebraska became infected with COVID-19, he said, and 269 lost their lives. The result was limited production at meatpacking plants across the state, he said, and the industry has not yet recovered.

At least 18 other states have used ARPA money to fund programs similar to the one outlined in LB755, Hladik said, and his organization estimates that approximately 80 Nebraska small businesses would qualify for assistance under the bill.

Owners of several small meat processing operations also testified in support of the proposal, including Brianna Haith of Gentert Packing Company in Holstein. Small processors need help to keep pace with the increased demand spurred by the pandemic, she said, noting that her company is booked through 2022.

“In many cases, customers are booking slaughter for animals that haven’t even been born yet due to fear of not having an appointment scheduled,” Haith said.

Ace VanDeWalle of Ord also testified in support on behalf of the Nebraska Association of Meat Processors. Grant money would be used by independent processors to increase capacity and efficiency, he said, adding that most small processors currently are operating at maximum animal processing capacity.

“New construction is expensive, generally running $250 to $450 a square foot,” VanDeWalle said. “An increase in a facility’s ability to process more animals will create additional jobs at the local level and increase revenue generated across the state.”

Paula Peterson, owner of a small cow and calf operation outside of Waverly, said many Nebraskans rely on small meat processors to harvest animals raised on their farms. Speaking in support of the bill, Peterson said she tried to make a reservation last fall to process a couple of animals for personal use and was told by the local processor that the next appointment was in 2023.

“Knowing how an animal was raised, and exactly where our meat comes from, is important to me and many consumers across the state,” Peterson said. “Our local processors are a crucial part of this process.”

No one testified in opposition and the committee took no immediate action on LB755.

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