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Meat cutting class aimed at helping central Minnesota farmers

The new course will begin this fall at the Central Lakes College Staples campus.

Lance and Robyn Bragstad look out at their cows.
Lance and Robym Bragstad, owners of Brakstad Natural Farms in Pequot Lakes, look out at their cattle Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. The Bragstads are hoping to benefit from a mobile slaughter unit that various local organizations have to come together to procure to help producers and to train students taking part in a new meat cutting class set to start at Central Lakes College this fall.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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PEQUOT LAKES — Lance and Robyn Bragstad are already making business plans for next September.

The owners of Brakstad Natural Farms in Pequot Lakes are facing the same plight as so many others in the meat production and processing industry.

“There are not near enough processing plants in the area to facilitate all of the beef growers,” Robyn Bragstad said. “I mean, everybody is on a waiting list, and we’re months out.”

Scheduling their cattle around tight windows means the animals might not be ideal weight for processing.

The limited number of processing facilities, paired with an aging generation of butchers nearing retirement age, has created a bottleneck in the industry and hardship on farmers.

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But Central Lakes College is about to help.

The school’s new meat processing program, set to roll out this fall at the Staples campus, is designed to bolster the industry. It is a 16-credit, one semester course that will walk students through the entire operation, from raising animals, to butchering, to processing, cutting and distribution.

“Literally our hope is that we will at least give them a taste of everything from slaughter to table,” said Staples Campus Dean Dave Endicott.

Industry struggles sparked the idea a few years ago, and in his year and a half at CLC, Endicott has spoken with farmers, agricultural leaders and legislators to determine just what the needs are.

“The impact I hope we have is that we’re preparing students well to move into the workforce and to really help them develop and help solve the backup we have with everything from slaughter to the processing piece,” Endicott said. “... And we’ve got some smaller shops in our region that have folks ready to retire, and if we can provide them with employees that could potentially move in and transition into either owning or at least managing and doing those things, then I think we will have impacted our region in a real strong way.”

Cows standing out in a pasture
Cattle at Brakstad Natural Farms in Pequot Lakes in the pasture Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

While the course will be funded — as all CLC courses are — through the state and tuition dollars, $150,000 in matching funds came from the Minnesota Legislature for startup costs and equipment. CLC has also requested further funds from Congressman Pete Stauber and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith through Congressionally Directed Spending, a program that allows lawmakers to request funds for various projects. There is also a grant request with the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Those funds would likely go toward a mobile slaughter unit and other processing infrastructure, which the college is hoping to procure through partnerships with other local and regional organizations, like Happy Dancing Turtle in Pine River.

Sustainable cattle farming is one of the nonprofit’s initiatives, and purchasing a mobile slaughter unit to help not only train students but also assist farmers with their processing needs, fits into that realm.

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While CLC students could use the mobile unit during their class period — which will be 5-9 p.m. Monday through Friday — that means local producers could make use of it at other times. Jim Chamberlin, conservation technologist at Happy Dancing Turtle, has been working with farmers to find out what kind of a model would work best for them.

The impact I hope we have is that we’re preparing students well to move into the workforce.
Dave Endicott, Central Lakes College Staples campus dean

One of the primary ideas is to use the unit for cull cows, which are those sold off for reasons like old age or injury. Lance Bragstad said those cows are often shipped to major meat processing plants because there just aren’t the resources around here. The Bragstads use Fox Farm in Browerville for much of their processing, and the Backus Locker for some of their custom orders. But with incredibly jam-packed schedules, squeezing in an injured cow at the last minute isn’t always doable.

That’s where a mobile harvesting unit would come in handy, allowing the meat to be processed and sold locally, which is important for many consumers.

“In the last two years for sure, I think the trend was starting to go this way, but more so now since the pandemic, we have seen a large increase in people wanting to know where their food is coming from,” Robyn Bragstad said.

Robyn Bragstad drinks coffee in her kitchen.
Robyn Bragstad, owner of Brakstad Natural Farms with husband Lance, talks Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, about the impact a mobile slaughter unit in the community could have on meat processing operations at the farm.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Depending on funding, various mobile units could be used for different practices — grinding, packaging, steak, custom orders.

While some of the funding is still up in the air, Chamberlin said enough money is in place to buy a mobile unit that will be ready for CLC students to use this fall.

It’s a concept the Bragstads are excited about for their own business. And those at CLC are grateful they’ll be able to make use of it for educational purposes.

The program itself is a testament to CLC’s status as a community college, according to President Hara Charlier, who said everything the college does is designed to help the community. And through all the collaboration with industry professionals and local business owners, this meat processing program is one of the best examples of that community building element she said she has ever seen.

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“We live in a special community,” Charlier said. “People care about their communities, and this was a beautiful illustration of that with the college and the industry coming together to make it a reality.”

Ideally, the impact of the course and the mobile harvesting unit will help to serve a whole slew of small- and medium-sized producers around the community.

“And that to me,” Charlier said, “is extremely heartening because that’s what our work is about.”

For more information on the meat cutting program, visit bit.ly/CLCMeatCutting .

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Related Topics: CENTRAL LAKES COLLEGE
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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