Disruptions in the food supply chain last summer could end up being one of the few silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic as it forced business leaders and elected representatives to take a hard look at some of Iowa’s most critical infrastructure.

After several of Iowa’s largest meat processing plants were rattled by the pandemic, with few options available, many livestock producers turned to smaller operations. However, with limited capacity and fewer employees, these smaller lockers were soon overrun and overbooked. In some cases, lockers have appointments filled through 2023.

To deal with the surge in demand and help protect the supply chain from future disarray, the Iowa House of Representatives has recently passed House File 857 by a vote of 91-0, which aims to provide financial assistance for small-scale operations and create programs that will help to train the next generations of butchers.

Rep. Lee Hein (R-Monticello) said the bill is not only designed to help small lockers to expand, but to provide assistance to start-ups as well.

“Right now, if you want something butchered or slaughtered, you’re still out a year or so for a lot of lockers,” Hein said.

Hein said while it’s a little crazy to imagine that producers are booking appointments for animals that haven’t even been born yet, that at least means these small lockers have a steady stream of income for the foreseeable future.

Historically, the unpredictable nature of the farm market has made it difficult for these smaller operations to secure a loan from banks. And as President John F. Kennedy once famously said “the farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, pays the freight both ways.”

But with this bill, Hein said there is approximately $750,000 in the economic development budget to aid with this endeavor as a fund for those who want to apply.

A task force is also forming to explore the feasibility of establishing an artisanal butchery program to teach the next generation the art of meat processing at a community college or an institution governed by the state board of regents.

Two area high schools, West Delaware and Edgewood-Colesburg, have already started similar programs which have allowed interested students to get a behind-the-scenes look at the industry.

“I hope this program continues,” Hein said. “I know it was born from the problems we saw last summer when people couldn’t find meat, but I think people are realizing they can go out and buy a steer or hog if they have the freezer space to store it. And it’s probably a way better deal to have butchered locally, plus you know where the meat came from.”

The bill will award financial assistance to eligible businesses for projects including expanding or refurbishing existing or new state-inspected and federally inspected small-scale meat processing businesses and custom lockers while allowing for the same to happen with mobile slaughter units.

According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, there are 69 state-inspected facilities and 81 custom lockers.

Funds can also be used to assist with rent of buildings or equipment.

Some restrictions included within the bill state that businesses can’t be subject to any regulatory enforcement within the last five years, must employ only individuals legally authorized to work in the state, not currently be in bankruptcy and employ less than 50 individuals.

The financial assistance awarded shall not exceed the amount of eligible project costs and priority will be given to businesses that will create new jobs, create or expand opportunities for local small-scale farmers-to-market processed meat under private labels and provide greater flexibility or convenience for local small-scale farmers to have animals processed.