By Johnathan Hladik
If you recently bought meat from a local farmer, you are not alone. Over the past 22 months, millions of Americans quit overpaying at the grocery store and began buying food grown closer to home. This is good news for local livestock producers and the independent meat lockers they partner with.
While a bright spot during difficult times, this sudden increase in demand has brought its own set of challenges. Independent processors needed to scale up, and fast. This laid bare capacity shortages that have drawn the attention of state and federal officials across the country.
Last week, the Biden administration announced a plan to grow the independent processing industry and create more options for producers and consumers alike. Most of the headlines focus on $375 million in gap financing grants, but two lesser-known provisions may prove more important.
First, $100 million is being set aside to support development of a well-trained workforce and good-paying, quality jobs. Many independent processors report that a shortage of skilled employees is the biggest obstacle to growth. Developing and expanding this workforce will lead to good paying jobs in rural communities.
Second, up to $275 million is dedicated to making affordable capital available to independent processors that need credit. Access to capital has long been an industry challenge. Traditional lenders are missing from many rural communities, and others simply are not familiar with this unique business model. Combined with a promised $1 billion in guaranteed loans, this will help make expansion a reality.
The benefits of a strong independent processing sector are far reaching. These investments will create good local jobs and make it possible for diverse family farms to grow and thrive. Just as important, this will help guarantee the consumer has more options for healthy, affordable food grown closer to home.
Johnathan Hladik is policy director, Center for Rural Affairs