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Small Minnesota butchers become medium rare

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Whitman Briard cuts steaks.
Whitman Briard cuts steaks to exact specifications for a customer at Mills Locker in New York Mills, Minn., on January 14, 2015. Briard says his business is growing, but state officials say the small meat processing industry in the state is at a critical crossroads as business owners age.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

In days gone by, the independent butcher shop was a common fixture in Minnesota towns. No longer.

"Boy, it's just a dying industry," said Whitman Briard, who operates a butcher shop in New York Mills. "There used to be a meat locker in just about every town. Now there's one in every other or every third town."

Even at a time of increasing demand for locally grown food, a recent study found dozens of small butcher shops could close in the next decade if nothing is done to shore up the industry.

There are an estimated 280 small meat-processing facilities in Minnesota. State officials worry that many could close in the next 10 years — unless younger operators like Briard take over.

Briard bought his butcher shop when he was 19. Now he's 34. That makes him unusual in an industry where two-thirds of owners are at or near retirement age.

He grew up on a hog farm, worked in a butcher shop as a teenager, enjoyed the work and decided to make it a career. He shook his head when asked about the future of the industry.

"The younger generation just don't have the interest in it," he said. "It's extremely physical work, very skilled work, and nobody has the desire to do it."

Briard said his biggest challenge isn't growing the business. It's finding and keeping workers.

As he spoke, he slid a slab of beef across the blade of a bandsaw, cutting steaks to a customer's order. "Each customer is different," he said. "This particular customer wants three-quarter-inch steak."

Whitman and Amanda Briard
Whitman and Amanda Briard have been in the meat processing business since they were teenagers. They hope their own children will someday take over the business. Behind them is the retail cooler. Walk-in meat sales are a relatively small part of the business at Mills Locker, but a growing number of customers are looking for meat with a farm to market connection.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Briard and his wife Amanda run Mills Locker in New York Mills. With three employees, they can process about 10 beeves and 10 hogs every week.

Their business plan is simple: Give customers what they want.

"The entire industry is built on word of mouth," he said. "You can advertise all you want. If you don't have a good product, they won't come back twice."

The Briards operate a small retail shop. Specialties include 27 flavors of bratwurst. But most of the meat they cut and package goes directly to a customer's freezer.

"Most of our business is custom cutting," he said. "A farmer raises three beef; they put one in the freezer, give each a half to their kids for Christmas; the neighbors buy one."

And that business is booming. "Especially in the fall time," he said. "Everyone wants to fill the freezer." Small farmers make up most of Braird's business. Minnesota has more than 4,000 farms that raise fewer than 10 cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Every year, hundreds of farmers bring animals to Mills Locker to be butchered, cut to order and packaged. Briard said he has customers from Duluth, Fargo, St. Cloud and as far away as Wisconsin. The plant also spends the entire month of November cutting and packaging deer killed by hunters.

The Briards also notice increased demand from customers looking for a connection to their food. They want to know who the farmer is and how the animal was raised.

Slicing meat from the bone.
A worker at Mills Locker in New York Mills, Minn., slices meat from a bone on January 14, 2015. Whitman Briard says finding young workers is his biggest business challenge.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

That trend shows no sign of slowing down, said Paul Hugunin, who works to promote locally grown food at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He said that if two-thirds of small meat processors retire in the next decade, it will be a significant blow to the local food movement and the ag industry itself.

Small meat processors are a critical link connecting farms to consumers, Hugunin said.

"These are businesses that are very, very important to Main Street Minnesota, throughout the state of Minnesota," he said. "Our livestock industry in Minnesota is very significant economically, but you have to have the processing in order to make that work."

In the next couple of months, the Agriculture Department hopes to develop a plan that will help sustain and grow the industry.

"How do we circle the wagons?" he asked. "How do we get everybody united behind a strategy and how do we use our strengths to make sure that we can help this industry get to where it needs to be?"