Meat Processing: Educating the Next Generation
Livestock, dairy and poultry are big business for North Carolina, making up 70% of the state’s farm cash receipts. North Carolina consistently ranks among the Top Five in the nation when it comes to production of turkeys, broiler chickens and hogs. And the state’s meat processing industry is a vital link between that production and your dinner table.
On this episode of Farms, Food and You, we’ll take a look at the industry, the challenge it faces in filling a critical need for trained workers and managers, and how North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is working to help meet that need.
About Our Guests
Currey Nobles is a lecturer in NC State’s Department of Animal Science and its Agricultural Institute and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science at the university. Kristi Mitchell is owner of Mitchell’s Meat Processing in Walnut Cove, and Zev Flinschum is the company’s head butcher. From Carolina Packers in Smithfield, Chris Moore is plant manager and holds a bachelor’s degree from NC State’s food science program, and Johnny Hayes is vice president and general manager and holds an associate degree from the Agricultural Institute.
Livestock, dairy and poultry are big business for North Carolina, making up 70% of the state’s farm cash receipts. North Carolina consistently ranks among the Top Five in the nation when it comes to production of turkeys, broiler chickens, and hogs. And the state’s meat processing industry is a vital link between that production and your dinner table.
In this episode of Farms, Food and You, we’ll take a look at the industry, the challenge it faces in filling a critical need for trained workers and managers, and how North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is working to help meet that need.
North Carolina is home to a diverse meat processing industry, one that spans seafood processors on the coast, to country ham producers in the mountains and to some of the world’s largest pork and poultry processors in between.
Currey Nobles, one of NC State’s leading experts on the industry, provides some perspective.
There’s around 400 registered meat processing facilities across the state. And so they’re literally all across the state. There’s on the coast and the eastern part of the state and in the Piedmont and getting out to the western part of the state as well. There’s … facilities everywhere that definitely contribute to the local economy of wherever they are.
We are a national leader and really a global leader in meat processing – a lot due to the fact that we’re also a national leader in animal agriculture, so specifically focused on the pork and poultry industries. We have a lot of pigs and chickens and turkeys here in the state, and so there’s a lot of meat processing as well. And so in North Carolina, it’s a great representation of the meat industry because we have very, very large companies and very, very large processing facilities, but we also have a fair amount of medium and small processing facilities as well. So we have a good sort of scope of different size facilities that are providing products to different levels of consumers. But just from a scale perspective … here in North Carolina, we have the world’s largest pork processing plant and the world’s largest turkey processing plant, and so those plants are supplying protein to people all over the world. And so that’s … the biggest of the big, but … we’ve got … regional and small companies as well that are providing product to customers more locally.
What do these companies do? Again, Nobles explains.
Meat processing and food processing in general, you’re starting with a raw agricultural commodity and you’re transforming it for some reason. And so with the meat industry, we’re processing things for a couple of reasons, either to make that meat product safer, to help preserve it – to make it last longer, have a longer shelf life – or adding value to it. … Our meat processing relies on specific pieces of equipment, technology, ingredients to transform the raw agricultural commodities. And so meat processing is a broad term, but it encompasses everything from safely and humanely harvesting animals all the way through to making ground beef – is a processed meat product. Things like boneless, skinless chicken breasts, those are processed products, but also things like hotdogs and sausages, those are also types of processed meat products. So very broad umbrella that encompasses a lot of unique equipment and technological things that are done to transform those products.
Ensuring a consistent, safe and reliable supply of these products requires people. And if you talk to folks at medium- and small-scale meat processing companies, you’ll hear the finding knowledgeable, trained employees is one of their biggest challenges.
Here’s Kristi Mitchell of Mitchell’s Meat Processing, in Walnut Cove, North Carolina.
Anybody I’ve hired in the last five years has come to me with little to no training. The only training anybody has with has been deer processing, and that’s just been hunting on their own. … But other than that, most people just walk in off the street not having any experience. So as a business owner, it is very, very hard to find people that have any experience.
Anybody that I hire, I have to invest a lot of time and hours in.
At NC State University and its two-year Agricultural Institute, Currey Nobles is leading the way when it comes to preparing more graduates who are ready to fill a wide range of jobs in the industry.
The great thing about the meat industry is that there are lots of available jobs, depending on what your skillsets are or what you’re interested in. … Obviously when people think of the industry, they think about the actual sort of production jobs. And so obviously those are very important because that’s what gets product out of the door. That’s what gets product to the grocery store and on the shelves. So production, people working on lines, people running equipment, people managing those people, those sort of production jobs are obviously very important.
But the meat industry is an industry just like any other industry. … Within the meat industry, there are also lots of opportunities for other jobs, things like sales, HR, IT, logistics, all of those things you could work in any industry. The meat industry needs those skill sets as well …
And so also not just with the meat processing plants themselves, but with what’s known as the allied industries. So things that meat processing plants rely on – so businesses like spice and ingredient suppliers, businesses like packaging and different equipment suppliers … also need employees.
Nobles was part of a Golden LEAF Foundation-funded effort at NC State University to develop new opportunities for students to gain the kind of education employers want out of their employees. The grant had four components.
The first one was the development of a curriculum here at NC State focused on meat processing. And then there was also the development of something called the Agricultural Operations Certificate. So that’s something that students within the Ag Institute program can take. They can take classes to get a certificate, which are focused on soft skills and sort of people management skills and agricultural business management.
The third component was providing internship opportunities for Agricultural Institute students, especially … focused on meat processing and livestock operations in rural counties in North Carolina. And then the last component was something that we’re calling the mentoring teams, which are composed of graduate students and then undergrad students that … go across North Carolina and interact with high schoolers either in their classes or at career fairs or things like that to promote opportunities within agriculture and specifically within livestock and poultry and meat processing.
Noble, a lecturer in the Agricultural Institute, helped develop the food animal and poultry processing curriculum. It consists of three classes: An introductory course is designed not just for people who want to join meat processing companies but also for students who will be raising livestock on their farms and selling products directly to consumers through farmer’s markets or farm stores. Then there’s a value-added meat and poultry processing course, and a course on meat safety and quality systems.
All three courses contain labs that take advantage of NC State University’s on-campus pilot-scale meat processing plant.
Not only do we do that, the hands-on component within the lab, but I take all the classes I’ve taught so far, we’ve been on basically field trips. So we go to actual meat processing plants across the state, get to go on a tour of their facilities and see different processing operations, understand what sort of quality and safety systems that they’re using on a day-to-day basis. And so that’s really the best way students can get an understanding of what the meat industry is – to actually see what goes on inside of a processing plant. …
Representatives of meat processing companies in North Carolina are excited about the classes and what they have to offer both to students and to industry. Here’s Kristi Mitchell again.
I think the new classes … at NC State are going to be very, very helpful to me as a meat processing plant owner. Working with Curry closely, we can tell him exactly what’s going on in our industry so he can cater these classes to the topics at hand, but also what’s relevant in the business we are working right now. The partnership that Curry has grown with Cooperative Extension and the meat processing plants is really what’s going to help develop these programs and make them so they are really purposeful and really helpful for the people that graduate and have these degrees.
One of Mitchell’s employees, Zev Flinschum, says he wishes he’d had the opportunity to take the courses when he came to the meat processing industry. Over time, he’s progressed from packing products to being head butcher.
If I had that opportunity, I wouldn’t kind of be lost when I walked in here. … Having access to a class prior, it would help me in situations of ‘I know what I’m doing now. I can come in here, I can do this, I can do this already knowing, and I can help out the owners of said processing plant immediately instead of having to through the whole course of learning it at the processing plant.’
Chris Moore is plant manager for Carolina Packers, a mid-sized processing company in Smithfield, North Carolina that produces Bright Leaf hotdogs and other products. He says graduates of NC State University and the Agricultural Institute are prized in the industry.
They come in with a working knowledge of the food science curriculum that’s so needed in this industry – meaning when I hire someone to run a department in my plant, I don’t have to start from ground zero. I can start from a higher level and then take their knowledge to the next level without spending so much time explaining the ground rules. By ground rules, I mean, ‘This is what pH is, this is what a temperature is, this is …’ Ground rules such as that, I can start at an elevated altitude and take you higher, speeding up our training process.
Moore is a graduate of NC State’s four-year food science program, and he works for Johnny Hayes, the vice president and general manager, who graduated from the two-year Agricultural Institute, or AGI. Hayes sees a particular need in having qualified employees in areas covered by the institute’s new courses.
The jobs that are out there that I think that the AGI could fill are along the lines of your quality control, process control and food safety, from the regulatory standpoint … and I think it’s important that we get that message to future students that, ‘Hey, here is a part of the meat industry that needs a lot of help.’
Curry Nobles is doing just that – and he’s helping students understand how valuable the meat processing industry is to consumers around the world.
Most people when they think meat processing, it’s a very sort of narrow focus and don’t really consider that meat processing jobs as careers in agriculture when in reality, they most definitely are. And so I think it’s trying, once again, to expose students to more opportunities and say, ‘Hey, there’s a lot more within the realm of meat processing.
Meat is something that a lot of people consume on a day-to-day basis. So from an industry perspective, it’s really important that there’s a consistent supply of available protein. So the meat industry, especially here in North Carolina, is committed to making sure that that supply stays consistent – and it’s not only available, but it’s a wholesome product and that the consumer has a choice of meat products.
To learn more about the Agricultural Institute’s food animal and poultry processing curriculum at NC State, visit us online at go.ncsu.edu/food-animal.
Thank you for listening to Farms, Food and You, produced by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. Over the past three years, we’ve enjoyed bringing you information and news about food and farming issues in North Carolina. This is our last episode, but you can hear previous episodes at go.ncsu.edu/farms. And we hope you’ll keep up with the latest from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences online at cals.ncsu.edu/news.