Murphy: Smaller, Newer, Better

A new venture in rural Wisconsin aims to provide local producers with a packing plant to process their livestock. ( RabobankResearch )

During the nearly 10 years I lived in Chicago, it was practically mandatory for the residents of the Windy City — and Illinois in general — to make fun of those “cheeseheads” up north in Wisconsin.

C’mon. How can you not chuckle at people wearing giant foam blocks of fake cheese on their heads, not only at football games, where every team has plenty of hardcore fans dressing up in outrageous costumes, but walking around town, shopping at the supermarket or wandering the aisles of the local mall.

Packer Backers are passionate in ways that city folks, like me, can only witness with awe.

For example: Some years ago, me, my wife and her Australian in-laws found ourselves driving around western Wisconsin on a Sunday morning looking for a pub. Why? Because the Aussies wanted to experience a “real American tavern.”

Upon entering a fine establishment already packed full at 9 am, we realized that most of the occupants were well on the way to a rousing afternoon of imbibing pitchers of Old Style on tap. But we noticed that there was a large space cordoned off with a huge canvas tarp. We wondered if that part of the pub was undergoing a renovation — although based on the prevailing décor, it looked like nothing had been updated in the last three decades.

Then, about an hour before the kickoff of that day’s Packers game, one of the bartenders pulled back the tarp, revealing a life-size wooden cut-out of a Vikings player positioned against the wall about 30 feet away. As we watched in amazement, one after another the patrons stepped up, took hold of a compound hunting bow and proceeded to fire metal-tipped field arrows at the target, to the wild cheers of everybody in the bar.

Just another Sunday morning celebration by the good people of Cheese Curd Township, or wherever we were that day.

Say what you will about Wisconsinites, but you won’t find archery on the menu at any of the bistros on Chicago’s Rush Street, that’s for sure.

A cooperative venture

Here’s another distinction that, while not unique to rural Wisconsin, is uncommon enough to warrant the support of everyone in animal agriculture: The opening of a meatpacking plant to service small farmers, ranchers and producers in the local area.

As reported in the Leader-Telegram newspaper in Eau Claire, the new plant is opening in what was formerly a Swiss Valley milk processing plant. The venture is being spearheaded by Rich Sitarski, a Wisconsin elk farmer, and Duane Johannes, who operates a mobile butchery.

The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative and the Great River Graziers, two organizations that promote local beef and dairy production, are helping generate support among local farmers in the region.

As noted in this space on numerous occasions, the various factors that forced the closure of hundreds of small packing plants nationwide, including the costs of implementing and complying with mandatory HACCP systems, along with the threat of exposure from a potential food-safety recall, have left small-scale breeders, feeders and ranchers without cost-effective market access.

“Meat processing is absolutely critical to us; it’s one of our No. 1 concerns with the grazing group,” Cynthia Olmstead, the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative project director, told the newspaper. “I cannot stress enough how important it is for our community, as we’ve lost many of our meat lockers.”

The new facility, Solar Meats, is located in Soldiers Grove, a small town in western Wisconsin about equidistant from La Crosse to the north and Dubuque, Iowa, to the south. As noted in the article, “The owners plan to process large animals, with a focus on the humane treatment, and to seek organic certification, due to a concentration of farmers in the Organic Valley Co-op.”

When the former cheese processing facility is fully retrofitted, it will include a sausage-making operation, a smokehouse and ultimately, a retail meat store. By the end of 2019, Sitarski and Johannes plan to finish the new kill floor and installation of coolers.

Of course, in many states, the announcement of a new meatpacking plant would be greeted with strident opposition, and the residents of rural Wisconsin aren’t immune to similar concerns. But the principals of this new venture are touting the economic value to the regional farm community, as well as appealing to consumers’ interest in local food production.

“We know local farmers need a processing plant,” Sitarski said, “but we also know people in the area are opposed to a large processing plant. We’re hoping to be in the middle.”

Mike and Sue Mueller, who plan to operate the retail operation at the Solar Meats facility, plan to market the “local” angle by promoting products made on site and by inviting local people to sell produce and other products inside their store. Down the road, plans are being explored to install a commercial kitchen to encourage food production using local ingredients and to establish a weekly farmers’ market at the site.

It all sounds terrific — as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sunday morning target practice.

More columns by Dan Murphy:

A Bear Of A Scandal

Cattle As Conservationists