Penn State is launching a butcher training program to grow the availability of local meat processing.
“The Penn State Butcher School addresses a longtime, growing and immediate need nationwide, but especially in the commonwealth,” said Jonathan Campbell, Penn State Extension’s meat specialist and one of the organizers of the program.
Local meat processors provide an essential service for farmers who want to sell directly to consumers.
But unlike plumbers, electricians and welders, butchers don’t have a true licensing program or school to teach the skills of the trade, Campbell said. He suspects the cost of equipment and need for specialized personnel put such programs out of reach for many technical schools.
Two online programs launched this year to provide information about becoming a meat processor, and there are a handful of two- or three-day courses in North America.
“These do little more than provide a thirst to learn more about our industry and gain much needed skill and proficiency,” Campbell said.
At Campbell’s insistence, Penn State’s program will be a far meatier 10 months of in-depth training, said Dan Brockett, an Extension community development educator involved in the project.
“It’s not like taking a weekend off or saying, hey, I’ll go up every Tuesday after work or something like that,” Brockett said. “It’s a commitment.”
The first half of the Butcher School will be held at Penn State’s Meats Lab.
Each week, students will get 10 to 15 hours of classroom instruction, as well as 15 to 20 hours of on-the-job training slaughtering and cutting up animals.
“You can’t learn to be a butcher in theory. You really have to get your hands on this,” Brockett said.
The second half of the program will be an internship at a commercial butcher shop.
Students will learn from an experienced meat cutter and develop a new product, process or marketing plan for the business.
The hands-on portions of the training will be paid, and students will finish the program with hazard analysis and critical control point certification, a key food safety credential, Brockett said.
The Penn State team started batting around the idea for a butcher school a year and a half ago after finding that many of the meat processors the group worked with did not have a next generation interested in continuing the business.
“The younger butchers were in their 50s,” Brockett said.
The coronavirus pandemic added urgency to the project this spring.
Outbreaks at huge meatpacking plants briefly left meat supplies tight in some stores, and many consumers turned to local farms and meat shops.
Even though farms had market-ready livestock, getting a slaughter date could be difficult because meat processors were already near capacity.
“We never had a meat shortage. What we had is a supply chain issue, right?” Brockett said. “So we thought, we better darn well get this thing kicked off.”
Over time, Brockett hopes the program will allow farmers to get their animals processed nearby and grow their income. Some farmers currently haul their animals several hours away to get processed, which is a major cost.
Campbell is pleased with the enthusiasm the program is generating. More than 50 people applied for the first class, even without Penn State running a huge marketing campaign.
The applicants are a mix of people who plan to work for an existing butcher shop and those who want to open their own small business, Brockett said.
Just five to seven students will be accepted for the first class, which is slated to begin in January.
While the application period for next year is over, people who are interested in enrolling in future years are welcome to get in touch, Campbell said.
The Butcher School team is working to get the program approved by the state as an official apprenticeship.
More information on the butcher program can be found atbit.ly/PSUbutcher