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Minnesota butcher shop participating in college's new meat-cutting program

As one generation prepares to retire, there's a need for younger people to learn the trade of meat processing and fill their shoes. Ridgewater College has stepped in to provide the training.

Man in butcher shop cutting up pork
Carlson Meat Shop employee Adam Boreen processes pork Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at the shop in Grove City. Carlson Meat Shop works with Ridgewater College's meat-cutting program to help students gain hands-on experience on weekends.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune
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GROVE CITY, Minn. — The first students in Ridgewater College’s meat-cutting course might already have jobs in the new year.

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During a tour of Carlson Meat Shop in Grove City Monday, Oct. 17, college officials talked about the broad popularity of the program and the need for it.

Though the program has been promoted only in Minnesota, they have heard from meat processors from around the country, including New Jersey, Florida and Nevada.

Carlson Meat Shop is a partner in the class, allowing students to gain hands-on experience for each class. Students get their practical experience at butcher shops near where they live.

The course includes six online courses plus required hands-on experience. The course will lead to an 18-credit certificate. Graduates will be qualified to work in a butcher shop, work for a meatpacking company or open their own business.

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A woman smiling
Sophia Thommes, meat-cutting instructor at Ridgewater College, talks about the new program during a tour of Carlson Meat Shop in Grove City, which offers students hands-on experience. Thommes teaches a series of four-week courses about different aspects of the business. A total of 10 students have registered for courses in the first semester of the program.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Instructor Sophia Thommes, who teaches the classes, said the five four-week courses have been taught consecutively during the semester, and a farm marketing class, taught by the college’s ag faculty, runs the full length of the semester.

Manager Jesse Weseman led a tour of the meat shop in Grove City.

The meat shop is U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified and has an inspector on site each day. It offers processing from slaughter to finished product. It’s a requirement of the class that students learn all aspects of the business, including slaughter.

Woman processing pork chops in butcher shop
Nikki Schlueter, an employee at Carlson Meat Shop in Grove City, scrapes pork chops in preparation for packaging Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in the shop. The shop is working with Ridgewater College to provide some hands-on experience for students in the meat-cutting course the college started this fall.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Weseman explained each step of the process during the media tour, which took the group from the slaughter room to the coolers where the meat hangs to age to the cutting tables where workers were busy processing a local farmer’s hog.

Weseman said he learned meat cutting on the job, at meat shops in Hector and Olivia and from Chuck Carlson in Grove City. He’s enjoying showing the business to the Ridgewater students, he said.

“We’d like younger kids to get involved, because we need a new generation,” he said. “There’s not that many young people in the trade.”

It’s a problem when meatcutters approach retirement and have no one to pass their business down to, he said.

Carlson had been a third-generation business, but the fourth generation wasn’t interested in continuing it. Finding the right person to buy it can be difficult.

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Joel Inselmann, who owns a concrete business and raises beef, heard the meat shop might close.

photo of man in tan shirt, wearing a cap
Jesse Weseman, manager of Carlson Meat Shop, Grove City
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

“If this guy closes, all of us local farmers are going to be out our butcher shop,” he said. “I came home one day and said, 'Honey, I’m buying the butcher shop.’”

The sale closed two weeks later, in July 2020.

Inselmann said he was happy to have the chance to welcome students to the business.

“If we can be any part of helping the industry grow, we’re going to do that,” he said. There’s also the hope that the students working in the shop may decide they want to stay.

Man wearing cap, smiling
Joel Inselmann, owner of Carlson Meat Shop, Grove City
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

“We’ll have a job for them if they decide they want to,” he added.

With an investment in new equipment, the shop can handle 20 hogs a month and 19 beef cattle a week, he said. The plant previously handled 10 cattle a week.

Thommes grew up in Wisconsin and learned how to butcher and make sausage when she was young. She studied livestock agriculture in college and was teaching agriculture in Pipestone Public Schools when she heard about the opportunity at Ridgewater.

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beef carcasses hanging from hooks in a butcher shop
Beef carcasses hang in a cooler Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at Carlson Meat Shop in Grove City
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

She teaches online courses about equipment and procedures, slaughtering and processing, food safety and advanced meat processing. A wild game animal processing course is an elective.

Students can sign up for just one course, she said, but they need to complete all six courses to complete a certificate.

The certificate is the first of three certificates the college plans to offer, she said. In the future, an advanced certificate in meat cutting and a meat-cutting and processing entrepreneur certificate will be added to the program.

The demand is there, as school officials have learned since they started talking about the training.

Thommes said she gets calls every week from meat shop owners who want to retire or sell their business. They want to find a student to participate in the program and gain the knowledge they need to be able to take over a business, she said.

A processor in Nevada called the college and said, “We will have 20 job openings for your graduates as soon as they graduate,” said Jake Seamans, a member of the college’s communications staff.

Courses in meat processing are planned for other colleges in the region, Thommes said. A new program is about to open in a community college near Rapid City, South Dakota, and a community college in Wahpeton, North Dakota, is partnering with North Dakota State University.

There’s a meat-cutting program at Central Lakes College in Staples, too, which works with its culinary program, Thommes said.

“This is hardly a unique-to-Minnesota situation,” Seamans said.

While many current butchers probably learned their craft through apprenticeships, “I think higher ed is going to help provide the next generation of the workforce,” he said. “We are able to help grow them into mature business people very quickly and launch them into great careers.”

Ridgewater, which has a traditionally strong ag program, is in a good position to help train the next generation.

Weseman said he sees that students are learning things in the Ridgewater course that he didn’t learn for several years.

Meat cutters can earn from $16 to $27.75 an hour, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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