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Soil Sisters: Perennial partnerships build healthy local meat market
April Prusia
April Prusia

For Soil Sisters, security is built with a perennial approach, creating and growing not just for a season or two, but for the long haul. As I have built perennial partners and relationships over the years as a Soil Sister, I’ve come to understand the importance of community like never before. The seeds we plant come in all shapes and sizes, yielding extraordinary fruits. We nurture each other’s dreams, fuel our curiosity, and foster growth in a thousand ways. And in these extra-chaotic times, it’s nice to feel comforted and cared for, sheltered from the storms and the unknowns for an unlimited amount of time. 

I feel stronger as part of this perennial ecosystem, and I like to be involved in strengthening it when I can. Over five years ago, there was a passionate exchange of emails around the subject of our meat processing on the Soil Sister listserv. The conversation grew, each person adding their story to the chain, until it became clear that our individual experiences, pet peeves, and hidden hopes were not individual at all: they were shared concerns. I was tasked by another Soil Sister to apply for a USDA North Central SARE Farmer Rancher grant to study our local meat processing situation, including the potential for growth and possibilities for full carcass utilization. I teamed up with a several Soil Sisters along the way, each offering different talents and perspectives.

It quickly became apparent to us that our rural places lack the skilled butchers and labor force that once was a common part of our rural farming community. Many folks can easily remember a time when there was a little butcher shop in almost every town. The butcher was respected and recognized as a great asset to their community. Since then the meat processing industry has conglomerated the approach, with large centralized facilities doing the work that once was facilitated by our neighbors, our community members. 

While this helped more consumers access cheaper food, it came with some shortfalls — to say the least. Farmers are getting less and less of every dollar spent on food, local processors are shuttering their facilities, small and medium livestock producers are having trouble getting slaughter dates when they need them. Our high-quality livestock travel far, leave the state, to finish out at feed lots only to be mixed with less quality carcasses and shipped back here to our butcher shops, institutions, and grocers. 

All of this was evident to us five years ago, but when the Covid pandemic shut down some large meat-packing plants — leading to meat shortages and empty meat cases in stores — I think a majority of folks became aware that farmers are not the only vulnerable people in this model. Farmers just down the road had animals ready for slaughter, yet consumers had no access to meat when in need. The system is broken, and people are ready for change. 

I try to see problems as opportunities, and now we have such an opportunity to work together to build a resilient food system. Here in southern Wisconsin, we have a head start with our rich soils, our clean water, our beautiful rural communities and our caring values. Our farmhood produces enough to meet most, if not all, of our needs. We are truly blessed to live in such a resource-rich community, and many of us are tuning in to those assets, using that abundance to build toward community resiliency.

As a farmer, I want to produce the very best heritage hogs I can, raise them on pasture and provide excellent meat to my community. To do this, I need reliable access to on-farm harvest and quality meat processing, key links in the chain from farm to table. I’ve been fortunate to have such access for the last few years, but I know that this is not true for many of my farming friends and Soil Sisters. They’ve told me, and our North Central SARE grant study confirmed it, so I have chosen to act on this knowledge. 

With other Soil Sisters, farmers and butchers, I am happy to be actively engaged in starting the Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative, a producer- and worker-owned meat processing co-op. We call it “WI Meat,” for short, because we meet you, both producer and consumer, here in the middle. Our shared mission is to serve as that valued link from farm to table, guided by the needs and aspirations of our producer-members, while honoring the craft of our worker-members. 

Every day brings us closer to being ready to launch WI Meat, to start our membership drive and open the doors of our facility. I know we will succeed, because we are all rooted in this community and share those long-term, perennial goals that bring strength and resiliency.  If you want to learn more about what we are doing and become a member please reach out. 

— April Prusia is a founding Soil Sister, owner and operator of Dorothy’s Range a farrow-to-finish pastured heritage hog farm, and president of the Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative. She can be reached at Soil Sisters, a program of Renewing the Countryside, connects and champions women in the Green County area committed to sustainable and organic agriculture, land stewardship, local food, family farms and healthy and economically vibrant rural communities.