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Packing plant woes mean extra work for area lockers

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HARTINGTON — Telephones are ringing off the hook at area lockers.

Lockers in Knox and Cedar counties are overwhelmed with calls from people wanting to have meat processed.

The closure of the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and pork processing plants in Nebraska and Iowa due to the coronavirus outbreak has heightened awareness of the serious situation in the meat processing industry. 

In April, several pork and beef processing plants halted or cut production. Farmers and producers have tens of thousands of hogs ready to be marketed but are having difficulty finding a processing plant that will take their hogs. Producers have had to face the heart-rendering possibility and decision of euthanizing pigs and hogs.

Mike and Stephanie Anderson purchased Wausa Lockers last year. It has been run by the same family for 20 years now. The local locker is booked up throughout the year and into 2021. Hogs are booked into January and beef into March. 

“We have always been busy and booked-out. Now we are over-booked,” Stephanie said. “I am worried about trying to get everything done and taken care of. My phone rings every three to five minutes.”

As a USDA inspected facility, Wausa Lockers does custom processing. Customers who have their meat processed at Wausa Lockers can sell the meat to others.

“Producers that have us process their meat and then sell it to others are getting wiped out with calls,” Stephanie said.

Andersons were able to bring in some part-time help during this busy time.

“We want to get the meat processed and out the door as fast as we can,” Stephanie said. “Our weeks are always packed full. We also process elk, buffalo and sheep, but right now we are focusing on beef and hogs.”

“Unfortunately, we are having to turn people away,” she said.

T&R Butcher Block in Fordyce is receiving a steady stream of calls from people wanting to book a date to have meat processed. T&R Butcher Block, owned by Rich and Tricia Millage, is booked full until February 2021.

“We are fielding close to 40 calls a day and having to tell them we can’t process their meat,” Rich said. “We are always at 100 percent capacity, but now we are overwhelmed. It started to go up a month ago and during the last two weeks it has really increased.”

Rich and Tricia and two daughters have been handling the increased workload at T&R Butcher Block.

“We process the meat and people have been coming right away to pick up their meat,” Rich said. “It’s overwhelming.”

T&R Butcher Block also offers a full-line of retail meats at their facility. Rich gets the product from a wholesaler and then re-processes the meat but has recently been encountering a few problems.

“The wholesaler’s price is way up and they have very little or no meat. We are selling 700 to 800 pounds of ground-beef a week. If prices don’t soften, we won’t be selling meat like we have been doing,” Rich said. “This will also affect local grocery stores. The supply is there but the producer cannot get it processed.”

B&B Locker is also at capacity. The Wynot locker is booked through January 2021 for hogs and beef, according to owner Karen Boeckman.

“We average 75 calls a day. We have to turn people down as there is only room for so many,” Boeckman said. “It’s been crazy.”

Five employees, which includes Boeckman, are putting in a lot of work and want to get things done as quickly as possible.

“It is so hard. We want to help everyone that calls,” Boeckman said. “but there are only so many hours in a day.”

B&B Locker, which has now been in business for 22 years, includes a retail section. Boeckman gets boxed meat from a wholesaler. The locker is federal and state inspected. Boeckman is happy to have the cutting room and the main room updated.

“We are up-to-date,” she said. “It is so much easier to clean. We power wash every night. We want everything to be clean.”