(Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on meat processing capacity. Last week's looked at Minnesota's meat processing industry.)

North Dakota is still facing uphill challenges with its meat processing capacity.

"Oh yeah," said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring when asked if the state had a significant shortage of meat processors.

Goehring said there are currently 76 custom exempt plants, 16 state-inspected plants (otherwise known as equal to), along with 20 more federal facilities in the state.

He said when the pandemic started, the smaller sites got hit the hardest by an overwhelming amount of orders. The state's ag department handled calls daily from consumers who were worried about where they would get their meat if their butcher or grocery store was booked or facing a shortage.

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"We started to point (consumers) back in the direction of their local meat processors and butcher shops, down the street or around the block, and that started taking off," said Goehring. "Some of them forgot how good of quality the meat they used to get locally and how it was all about price now."

But he said those consumers discovered the price difference wasn't all that much, and a lot of times the quality was better from local sites to them. In return, smaller butcher and processing operations in North Dakota became swamped by the new demand.

"Capacity all of a sudden was maxed out and people were being told six to nine months to a year before they could process an animal," said Goehring.

Using money that was requested from the federal CARES Act funding, Goehring said the state "kicked it into high gear" and set up a meat processing cost-share program. He said the cost-share fielded 76 applications for around $6.2 million in funds.

"It gave them the ability to update equipment, put in new cooler space, dehydrators, hangers, mixers, saws, smokers, stuffers and sealers so that they could increase their efficiency and their capacity," Goehring said.

According to the state's survey of processors, Goehring said they increased capacity of meat processing "across the board" by 226% since the start of the pandemic. However, no new processing sites were added since last March, he said, so the boost in capacity came from upgrades and expansions at current sites.

"That's pretty fantastic," he said of the increase.

One example he gave was a facility where one worker had to spend each day on the same equipment, in which it took an entire week to grind hamburger for a single order. An update to the machinery now has the site keeping up with the pace of the high demand.

"They had the ability to update their grinder, stuffer and packaging equipment, and now what they did in one week, they do in five hours," Goehring said. "Now that one person can go work on something else within the facility."

There are seven states that participate in the Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program, with North Dakota being one of them. The program allows the states to perform inspection during slaughter and processing, and the products can still include the federal inspection stamp.

"We were one of the first states in the United States to actually do it back in 2010," Goehring said of the program. "There's a lot of states that still aren't in it."

There's been legislation introduced that would create an Interstate Cooperative Meatpacking Compact between Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, but Goehring said he's skeptical of it.

"Because we already have a well-established meat sector and well-established regulations in our programs," he said. "And if we were to enter a compact, which doesn't recognize federal authority, it would compromise the integrity of the programs we already have in place."

South Dakota grants

Across the border in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem recently introduced a framework for up to $5 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds to assist South Dakota meat processors expand capacity to respond to market and workforce disruption due to COVID-19.

The Meat Processing Grant program would "provide processors with funds to make an immediate impact on the state’s ability to process or store South Dakota raised protein," according to a press release announcing the framework.

Depending on the total amount of funds available and the number of eligible applications received and approved, the program will reimburse processors a portion of expenses

Grants are available to meat processors with 60 employees or less located in South Dakota meeting one of the following criteria:

  • State inspected “equal to” slaughter and/or processing plants.
  • Licensed custom-exempt slaughter plants.
  • Very small federally inspected plants.

Applications are due on May 1, 2021, with awards announced on May 25, 2021. For more information visit https://sdda.sd.gov/office-of-the-secretary/meatprocessinggrant.aspx.