Benson and Turner Foods perseveres on meat processing plant, even after death of business partner
Benson and Turner Foods will process cattle and hogs at Waubun, Minnesota, on the White Earth Reservation with the help of a USDA grant.
WAUBUN, Minn. — Paul Benson’s persistence in the beef industry, even with the loss of his friend and business partner, is paying off.
Benson is the owner of Benson and Turner Foods, which in December 2022 was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of nearly $1 million to help build a meat processing plant at Waubun, to provide beef producers in Mahnomen County with a market and to help feed the local community on the White Earth Reservation.
“We’re not going to feed the world; we’re working on feeding our community,” Benson said.
The roughly $4 million project will build a USDA inspected livestock processing facility at Waubun to butcher cattle and hogs, about 30 beef per week. But it will also include a storefront for selling fresh cuts of meat and a commercial kitchen to help to support vendors at the local farmers market.
“Using a facility like mine, from what I can tell, we're going to probably get 75 to 80% of the consumer's beef dollar in the hands of the beef producer. So this could make quite a dramatic change,” Benson said.
He said he also hopes it can be a training ground for the White Earth Tribal and Community College for any aspect of the business — meat cutting, culinary, logistics and retail.
“Even though we live in one of the poorest counties in Minnesota, it's a good community, good workers,” Benson said.
It’s a plan that’s been about five years in the making, but with several setbacks along the way.
It started as a conversation with his friend, Rev. Doyle Turner, who also had served as the White Earth tribal chairman.
“Benson Turner Foods is a dream of two men that wanted to create opportunities for small beef producers to have a better opportunity for marketing; actually be able to budget and not have to depend on one afternoon of the year auction sale to determine their success — or lack of success — for the year,” Benson said.
Benson and Turner decided a processing facility could be a hub of economic opportunity for Waubun, a town of about 400 people and currently without a grocery store.
They worked on a feasibility study, with help from the tribal government and Minnesota Department of Agriculture. All the pieces were almost in place when the coronavirus pandemic started.
With large meat packing plants shut down by outbreaks, Benson said more people began to realize what beef producers had been saying for years — there was too much concentration in the meatpacking industry.
Producers and consumers flocked to small local processors — meat lockers that struggled to fill the gap.
Since then, grant programs have started up to help small processors add capacity and cooler space. Benson and Turner Foods were able to secure a $100,000 state grant.
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But COVID-19 also brought tragedy. Turner died on Sept. 21, 2021, from complications related to COVID-19 at age 77 .
“We’re not letting the dream pass away,” Benson said, with the USDA grant providing a big boost.
While neither Turner’s family nor the tribe is involved in the meat processing plans, Benson said he got permission from the Turner family to keep the Turner name on the business. He said it’s a name that helps bring their diverse community together.
“It’s been a challenging transition. It isn’t what we had planned,” Benson said.
But Benson says it’s a business he’s been preparing for his entire life.
His cattle operation has mostly been cow-calf pairs — breeding cows and selling the calves.
But he also keeps some cows behind for their family and extended family. Paul and his wife, Shelly, raised three children and both of them are from Mahnomen County and from large families still mostly in the area, so Paul learned to butcher cattle for their needs.
Meanwhile, Benson and his wife had both maintained jobs off the farm, with one of Paul’s jobs being working at the meat counter at the Central Market grocery store in Detroit Lakes, about 25 miles south of Waubun.
While the Bensons love the farm and raising a family there, they encouraged their children to get an education and pursue other dreams.
But he hopes the livestock processing business will help other farm families keep livestock as part of their operation.
Mike Gunderson is one of those farmers in Mahnomen County who still has livestock, producing beef cattle near Bijou.
“We’ve been losing livestock farms over the years,” Gunderson said. “Ventures like this … give you a ray of hope.”
And it’s not just farmers that benefit.
“I think it's actually a great, great opportunity for everyone around,” Gunderson said. “I think consumers benefit from sourcing their meat locally and getting a higher quality product than they would elsewhere. And then when you talk back to their local rancher, give them hopefully some opportunities to sell a premium product for hopefully for a premium price. And you don't have to transport animals outside of that area or feed them outside of the area. So hopefully, all the dollars generated from those animals will stay in our community, which I think will benefit everything.”
Gary Jacobson has his Jacobson Red Angus ranch near Hitterdal but also grazes cattle in Mahnomen County. He has sold beef to higher end restaurants in the lakes area, such as Spanky’s Stone Hearth near Frazee, and having a USDA-inspected processor will only expand those opportunities at restaurants, perhaps even at the Shooting Star Casino near Mahnomen.
“The local demand gets more and more all the time, especially since COVID,” Jacobson said. “They just want to know where their food comes from, and I think something like this here is going to be huge.”
Jacobson has used other state-inspected plants in the area, but Benson said having a USDA-inspected plant will benefit those plants, too. An animal can be slaughtered and quartered in Waubun and then go to one of the state inspected plants for further processing.
Benson still has some financing details to tie up but says construction should start this year and could be open as early as January 2024. It would initially employ about seven people.
“It’s been quite a journey," he said.