The University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced plans to develop the small meat processing plant of the future during a panel discussion Feb. 26 at the Nebraska Meat Processors Association annual convention on Grand Island. .
“The small factory of the future will be a multidisciplinary center to strengthen the meat industry in the region,” said Clint Krehbiel, director of the university’s animal science department.
The plant, which will be located next to existing zootechnical facilities, will serve as a regional processing center for local cattle producers, as well as a prototype for other small and very small facilities.
As part of the initiative, the university will consider upgrading equipment at the Loeffel harvesting and processing facility on East Campus, hiring and training staff to maintain regular slaughter operations and to set up a series of resources available to those looking to set up or expand small processing operations. The project is structured to have a multiplier effect throughout the region.
Krehbiel said that the covid-19 pandemic has brought to light issues that small meat processors have faced for years, including insufficient capacity of small processors to meet growing demand, barriers to implementing new technologies, and widespread shortages of workforce. The Little Factory of the Future aims to solve these problems.
Several processors present at the roundtable raised the issue of labor and staffing issues. To help build the workforce, the Small Factory of the Future will feature a suite of workforce development programs, including an internship program that will pair meat science students with small businesses. meat processors across the state. The university continues to seek other ways to integrate degree and non-degree programs into its Small Plant initiative. This may include training programs, including workshops for new employees in the meat processing industry; partnerships with community colleges; and continuing education opportunities for more experienced meat processors.
“ONE has been a leader in meat science for over 100 years,” Krehbiel said. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Representatives of the we The Agriculture Marketing Service of the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety and Inspection Services were present at the roundtable; USDA Rural development staff joined remotely. The event happened just two days after the USDA announced it is making $215 million in grants and other support available to expand meat and poultry processing options, strengthen the food supply chain, and create jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas . The university hopes to consider this program as a potential source of funding; other fundraising efforts for the factory are already underway.
The Small Factory of the Future concept comes at a time when the university has already committed millions to build and expand existing food facilities, including the Food Processing Center and Feedlot Innovation Center, a said Mike Boehm, A Harlan’s Vice President and Vice Chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“The Tiny Factory of the Future is a natural extension of what we are building at a time when the industry urgently needs it,” Boehm said. “La Petite Usine du Futur is a dream initiative for a land institution like ONE — a program that combines academic programs with practical applications and in-depth community partnerships that strengthen the region’s economy.
Chad Lottman, who attended the roundtable, said the discussion on workforce development caught his attention. Lottman and his wife, Courtney, own Landmark Snacks in Beatrice, which produces meat sticks and other processed snack foods and employs about 200 people. Prior to starting this business, the Lottmans ran CC Processing, a small meat locker in Diller. Processors of all sizes struggle to find reliable and qualified employees, he said.
“We need a skilled workforce,” he said.
Lottman said an internship program in particular would be valuable to his company, which already employs several Husker graduates in its food safety division. For smaller processors, he said, help implementing new software and other technologies would be invaluable.
“For the small processor, it’s tough,” he said.
Krehbiel said he anticipates some workforce development programs could be in place by the fall, with more programs and facility upgrades being added over the next few years. .