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Butcher Shortage


"Buying Local" has become important for many consumers, but there's a shortage of local butcher shop facilities and skilled employees to process locally produced meats. Despite the demand, younger people aren't learning the trade like they used to, and current employees are "ageing out." Northwest Premium Meats Plant Operations Manager Elliott Tolbert and local Bison Rancher Chase Shoemaker discuss the problem, and possible solutions


“This is Daisy, I bottle raised her from a little baby…”

Just outside of New Plymouth, Idaho, Chase Shoemaker ranches a small herd of buffalo, or bison as they’re properly known.

“They definitely get very well taken care of here. They’re pretty pampered bison, that’s for sure. And in my opinion a happy bison makes a good bison when it comes to steaks, so happy bison make good meat,” said Shoemaker.

“It’s becoming more and more popular.”

Shoemaker sells his bison to area shops and restaurants, and at farmer’s markets. Something that has become more common as “buying local” has become more important to many consumers. But operations like his are too small for larger meat processing plants.

“The big facilities in my opinion they’re great for big producers, but when you have a smaller producer like myself, others around here where we don’t process 1,000 a day or we don’t process a 1,000 a year or 10,000 a year, whatever it is, we process 40 to 50 to 100 a year, we have to have those custom plants like Northwest,” said Shoemaker.

Northwest Premium Meats is a small meat processor in Nampa, one of only a handful in the area that cater to smaller producers like Shoemaker.

“Definitely a shortage of butcher shop facilities and employees. I’m very fortunate to have butcher spots at that butcher facility down there. But the average person couldn’t call up there and get butcher spots in the next year and a half. They kind of have their customers down there and that’s who they butcher for. And then the other butcher shops around here locally are booking out for the previous season next year. Some places are 14, 15 months out now if you want to process animals down there. So, a huge shortage of facilities and employees as well,” said Shoemaker. 

“Right now, I’m down two from where I would like to be. I’d actually like to have probably 3 or 4 additional employees just to have that so people could go on vacation and have coverage,” said Elliot Tolbert.

Elliott Tolbert is the Plant Operations Manager at Northwest Premium Meats, and says people aren’t learning the trade like they used to.

“There’s really not, outside of the apprenticeships, there’s really not anybody out there pushing it like they used to. My mom when she was a kid learned how to cut meat in high school, right they had a little butchery,” said Tolbert.

“It is harder to find people with experience and training because there aren’t many out there.

I think this year I’m projected to add 6 to 800 head into my schedule this year, on top of what we’ve done last year, which was 30% more than the year before that.”

 There so busy they no longer process wild game animals for hunters.

“No, I don’t do game anymore. And I know there’s very few people in the valley that are doing game. There’s no time, no employees.”

Tolbert says they’re cutting 15 to 20 head a day here at Northwest, compared to 1,500 or more at a nearby larger plant.

There are new medium-sized plants that are coming soon to Idaho, but they would still be too big for many small producers.

Operations geared to smaller producers like this require a lot of on-the-job training.

“You still have to have somebody that knows what they’re doing, how to do it, has the right equipment, the food safety background,” said Tolbert.

“So, what we’ve done to try to entice and maintain our employees is… we’re paying more. Historically I think we were one of the highest paid plants in the valley.

And then we also pay a production bonus.

Most of my employees are over 40. I have maybe a handful that are in their late 20’s early 30’s but generally speaking, everybody is older. It’s ageing out because those are the guys that got into it 20 years ago and never left the industry.”

Tolbert says what they’re lacking is young people coming up to replace them.

“We aren’t getting kids. even in the 4H and FFA classes, you don’t have a lot of kids that are going, Oh man, I want to be a meat cutter, or I want to go stand on my feet all day and throw 50 pounds over my shoulder for fun,” said Tolbert. 

That’s something Chase Shoemaker knows all about. He doesn’t just raise bison.

“I teach high school at New Plymouth, animal science, plant science, welding and FFA advisor here in town. So, I have a day job and a night job. I do it all,” said Shoemaker.

He thinks there would be interest from students if it was presented as a viable option to them.

“I think there would be, I really do. I do talk meat science down there for a unit and I bring in meat cuts, we do meat ID, meat quality.

If I had my option, if I had the money, I could put a cooler in that facility and put a cut room in. And then bring in quarters or halves or whatever and break them apart.

Some sort of training program, either at the high school level or a cooperative with a junior college, or even a tech school. I mean there’s meat science at universities, but that is a meat science, another spectrum of what we’re trying to do,” said Shoemaker.

“The guys that are going to get those degrees are going into meat sciences fields, they’re going into plant management and operations. They’re not coming down to here to do the vocational side of it,” said Tolbert.

“We need a skilled meat cutter to work in a butcher shop, butcher block,” said Shoemaker.

“Ideally what I would like to see is a program at a community college level,’ said Tolbert.

Something like that would give people a strong enough background in the business, in the industry to know what they’re doing.

And then they can learn your specific process once they’re there. Something like that where you tie it into an internship and say, Okay you’re going to go to classes Tuesday and Thursday, and then Monday, Wednesday, Friday you’re going to go work at Northwest Premium Meats for three months and then for the next semester you’re going to come to school these days and you’re going to go work at Greenfield’s for three months or Boston’s Beef House for three months.

Put him with one of these guys that’s in their late 50’s, early 60’s and is really ready to retire. And they come in and they’ve invested in this schooling and they’ve learned all of this stuff and they’re excited about it. They come in and they actually want to take it over.

I think that’s really the way forward for the industry, for small plants is having these kids go somewhere and just learn.

We have to have the labor, we have to have the expertise. And then we have to fund it,” said Tolbert.

“There’s so many options that we could entertain, whatever would work to get those employees in there,” said Shoemaker.

“It’s a pretty good gig, there’s benefits involved, definitely a demand. If you had an experienced meat cutter right now, I know four places that would hire you today.

We’d have to have that cooperation between some butcher shops around to have some sort of intern program. You know on job hours and training is very, very important as well.

It’s kind of a work in progress.”

For the Voice of Idaho Agriculture, I’m Paul Boehlke.