Ground beef (USDA photo)
A new state grant program will spend up to $200,000 a year to help meat processors, their capacity severely strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, expand and modernize their facilities.
On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee took the formal step of authorizing the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to spend the funds, which were included in the 2021-23 biennial budget enacted this summer.
Grants of up to $50,000 each will be awarded to meat processing facilities through an application process for projects to increase their processing capacity. Recipients must match the full amount of the grant. Processing businesses of all sizes will be eligible to apply, according to DATCP.
The program is one-fifth of the $1 million a year that Gov. Tony Evers had called for in his original budget proposal before the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee reduced it. Evers’ proposal also called for “talent development” grants to help expand the processing workforce; those were removed from the final budget.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the budget panel, the committee’s four Democrats proposed an alternative that would have given individual grants of up to $100,000 each as the governor’s original proposal had proposed. That failed on a 4-11 party-line vote. The committee then unanimously approved the funds with the $50,000 cap.
Agriculture Secretary Randy Romanski said in a statement that “there’s a lot of need out there to expand processing facilities” in Wisconsin. While the funds released Tuesday can help address “some of the demand,” he said that the industry would also benefit from a continuing funding source as well as investment in expanding the number of meat processors and their skills. He suggested that the industry and lawmakers could work together toward that end.
The COVID-19 pandemic played havoc with the meat processing supply chain. Large packing companies saw major outbreaks of the virus among their workers. In addition, the number of local processors has been shrinking for several years, and those that remain in business are struggling in the face of increased demand.
Family farmers who raise beef, pork and other meat products depend on local processors in order to sell directly to consumers at farmers’ markets, food co-ops and other retail outlets, according to the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
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