The Small Meat Lockers Working Group (now known as the “Small Meat Processors Working Group”) is a participatory action project utilizing a community of practice structure bring diverse stakeholders – processors, Extension, producer groups, and state agents – together to provide coordinated, strategic support for the small-scale meat processing sector in Iowa.
The group has been successful in providing accessible information to plants seeking to expand, upgrade, or build new facilities; helping many processors develop more accurate and profitable product and service costing; and bringing assistance providers into better communication with each other.
A fundamental premise of sustainable agriculture is the ability to recycle nutrients within a farming system. The integration of crops and livestock on a farm is a desirable method for recycling nutrients, both practically and economically. Livestock are desirable way of utilizing land that, for ecological reasons, should not be tilled and planted with annual crops. Meat is typically a high value product, greatly helping support farm financial viability.
In recent decades the loss of small-scale meat processing infrastructure (“meat lockers”) has been often cited as a barrier to the viability of small diversified farms. This project sought (and continues to work) to improve decentralized meat processing infrastructure by forming a “community of practice,” a form of a participatory action research working group, of about a dozen organizations charged with inductively developing a plan for a coordinated structural support system for small meat processors in Iowa, inclusive of both public and private resources. The group’s mission is “to help small, Iowa meat processors expand, upgrade or build new facilities in order to promote rural development and increase agricultural opportunities.”
This Working Group began meeting in Sept of 2006, with three “test cases” – processors seeking to expand or upgrade – as means of investigating obstacles and weaknesses in structural support. After several months of work it became clear that the project will take longer than the one year that was originally planned. SARE funding helped the project continue another year. The project has been very successful, raising additional funds to expand its scope of work both during the SARE funding period and for an additional year from the Value Chain Partnerships Project (www.valuechains.org).
The overall project long-term goal was to establish a comprehensive and provider-coordinated structural support system for small meat lockers in Iowa. The process has been somewhat iterative due to its exploratory and participatory action nature. Through the short terms outputs of organizing a working group of support organizations and, as a group, working through three “test cases” – lockers seeking to expand or upgrade – intermediate-term objectives that support the overall goal included:
1. Cultivate inter-organizational trust and familiarity, and social capital between working group members so as to facilitate working group members and their organizations working together for the long haul.
2. Produce a guidebook of resources available to small meat lockers that will both serve as a reference for working group member organizations and an educational resources book for small meat lockers and organizations that work with them.
3. Establish an annual meeting where working group members get together with each other and small meat locker owner/operators in order to refine support. This will probably happen at the Iowa Meat Processors Association annual conference.
The group was brought together using participatory action research methodologies, specifically the use of the technique known as “communities of practice.” Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002:4) describe communities of practice (CoPs) as, “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” Perhaps obviously, this is not a new idea, but what is new is the way these structures are being used to coordinate organizational decision-making. As Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (6) point out, writing from a business context, new is “the need for organizations to become more intentional and systematic about ‘managing’ knowledge, and therefore to give these age-old structures a new, central role in the business. Knowledge has become the key to success. It is simply too valuable a resource to left to chance.”
Communities of practice can take on many forms, but Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder find that they always contain three core elements: “a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues [to be addressed]; a community of people who care about this domain; and a shared practice that they are developing to be effective [at communicating and capturing knowledge] in their domain” (27, original emphasis). Respectively, these are the what, who, and how of a CoP.
Within this CoP framework, the researcher takes part on equal footing with “research subjects.” The goal becomes working together as co-inquirers (or “co-conspirators”) and re-enforcing each other’s strengths to accomplish something that all parties own and are proud of.
To begin this project, I interviewed stakeholders (lockers, state health agencies, Iowa Food Policy Council, non-profits, producers groups, and all current working group members) about the best way to revitalize the small meat locker sector. Appreciatively asking them at least three things:
1) How would you conduct this project?
2) Who else needs to be part of this Working Group?
3) How would you envision coordination of multifaceted support for small meat lockers?
Sometimes I asked, “How would this be valuable to you?” This line of discussion simultaneously began to establish commitment and set direction.
The Small Meat Lockers Working Group was then formed from the following dozen organizations: North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (represented by me), Iowa Meat Processors Association, Center for Industrial Research and Service, ISU Meat Science Extension, Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Economic Development, Iowa Small Business Development Centers, Practical Farmers of Iowa, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Iowa Agricultural Innovations Center, and Iowa Farmers Union.
The three locker test cases were chosen:
1) Mingo Lockers – Seeking to build a new poultry facility
2) Spilleville Locker – Seeking to build a new red meat facility
3) Stanhope Locker – Seeking to upgrade and increase capacity of an existing red meat facility
Through appreciative inquiry facilitation, the working group suggests appropriate business support as needed for the three test cases, each experiencing a different situation. Initially the group met with test case plant owner-operator and collectively develop a working plan. This plan was inductively refined and mapped as the project moves forward both inside and outside of full group meetings.
The publication Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook was produced as a result of the findings from the three test cases. After many drafts and revisions, from all members of the working group, it was published in January 2008.
With funding from the Value Chain Partnerships Project (www.valuechains.org) the group was also able to hold a series of product costing workshops for small meat processors. While the first 5 meetings were face-to-face, the working group has since held via conference call every two months. A key aspect throughout the project has been the coordinator regularly meeting with and calling working group participants to keep them engaged and on-target with commitments.
Later in 2007 the group changed it’s name from the “Small Meat Lockers Working Group” to the “Small Meat Processors Working Group” (SMPWG). By the numbers, the SMPWG has now helped over two-dozen small meat processors directly with product costing and business development. Over 250 requested copies of the Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook (Thiboumery 2008) have been distributed to small Iowa Meat processors, producers, and assistance providers (the group members’ organizations, county extension offices, and others).
Now that every meat inspector for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a copy, as does all of ISU Meat Science Extension, and every account manager for CIRAS – and it seems many of them are reading it and using it. The Guidebook has additionally been downloaded over 150 times from the internet by groups in Iowa, nationally, and even internationally. It should be noted at least part of the reason the guidebook has been so widely read is so many people and organizations were involved with creating it; they had a stake in it from the beginning. It was not simply presented to them as a final product that they might then easily overlook in their busy schedules.
Perhaps the biggest results of this project is that small meat processors are now on the radar in Iowa. Small Iowa meat processors with this project were featured as the cover stories on two of the largest farm publications in Iowa – Iowa Farmer Today and Farm News (March 8, 2008 and Feb 8, 2008, respectively). News of the CoP was covered by Radio Iowa, and picked up by the Associated Press which in turn was run in the Des Moines Register and over a dozen other newspapers in Midwestern towns and cities. This media, while perhaps seemingly superficial, did help increase the sense within the group of the importance of working with small meat processors.
Whereas before the project began, there was little fanfare about small meat processors (as one CoP member told me candidly, “We were ignoring them”), now “conventional” groups such as Farm Bureau, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and three arms of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension are all actively distributing the Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook and answering assistance inquiries from small meat processors. The newspeice in Iowa Farmer Today, mentioning that three arms of Extension, from multiple colleges, were working together successfully, prompted the ISU Vice-President for Extension and Outreach to ask for a presentation on the workings of this CoP to his Administrative Team, composed of the heads of all the arms of Extension. At the presentation, the Associate Vice-President, commented that the project, “was an excellent model of Extension working holistically.” A CoP member, from a “conventional” organization, learning of this presentation, commented, “I hope the message was heard loud and clear that Extension works best when it works across teams and real resources are put into the hands of people who need them.”
Whereas at some points early on in the process of this working group, I felt like I was forcing things uphill. Now that momentum has been established, when the question was put to the group, that it might be a good idea to offer more hands-on trainings on “Business Sustainability, Growth, and Succession,” a half dozen excellent suggestions were not only proposed, but those proposing them said that their respective organizations would be willing to take the lead on producing such a training, donating staff time if incidental expenses could be covered by SMPWG. Clearly, they have taken ownership, and the operations of their organizations (many with vast resources) are being leveraged to further the goals of fostering healthy and vibrant rural communities and food systems, supporting “tens of thousands of small and medium-sized farms.” Organizations that were once seen to have competing agenda (“conventional” vs. “alternative” ag) are now working together towards the same ends. Objectives #1 and 2 have clearly been accomplished. Things are moving in the direction of object #3 although not fully concrete yet.
This work continues to move forward in Iowa with multi-year funding the Value Chain Partnerships Project (www.valuechains.org). This project has also fed into the development of a national network for assistance providers working small meat processors, the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (www.nichemeatprocessing.org), being co-lead by Arion Thiboumery and Dr. Lauren Gwin of Oregon State University. This network has been accepted as an eXtention Community of Practice (www.extension.org) and at the time of this writing has affiliates nearly half of the 50 United States. USDA Rural Development, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Heifer International will fund the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network’s development over the course of the next two years.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Thiboumery, Arion, ed. 2008. Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook. Ames, IA:
North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. RRD#189.
Publication in Progress (development only minimally funded by SARE):
1) Arion Thiboumery, ed. 2008. Model Designs for Two Small Meat Processing Plants.
Ames, IA: North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. RRD#192.
Should be published by September 2008
2)Arion Thiboumery, ed. 2008. A Guide to Buying Beef and Pork as Whole Animals.
In Progress (title subject to change).
Should be published late 2008.
The summer of 2008, the SMPWG, with CIRAS and the ISU Meat Lab taking the lead using Value Chain Partnership Project grant funding, held 3 product costing workshops for small Iowa meat processors. While only two of the three workshops have taken place at the time of this writing, 18 individuals from 10 plants have been able to attend.
See previous section, Results, Outcomes, and Discussion.
The spreadsheets developed to improve product pricing accuracy are being adopted in Iowa and a staff person from the University of Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership program will be attending a costing workshop in Iowa to take this training back to Nebraska to help small meat processors in that state. In general, no information or strategies developed through this research costs money to implement, in fact, the results of this research should generally increase business profitability.
Farmers were not the target audience for this project. Adoption of information by small meat processors and assistance providers is detailed in the Results, Outcomes, and Discussion section.
Areas needing additional study
More emphasis should be put on projects seeking to coordinate their work across many stakeholders, as opposed to the siloing of efforts that often takes place (in sustainable agriculture and elsewhere). The experiences of the SMPWG, using a participatory Community of Practice (CoP) structure are not unique. The other CoPs from the Iowa-based Value Chain Partnership Project (VCP) are achieving similar results. The conclusion from as-yet-unpublished evaluation of two older CoPs in the project by Corry Bregendahl states:
“Interviews with participants show the CoPs are building the capacity of ISU, ISU Extension, Iowa farm-serving non-profits, community based organizations, producer associations, government agencies, and other institutions to more effectively and efficiently support diverse farm-based enterprises engaged in activities that contrast in some way from commodity food and agricultural systems. In the process, the CoPs are also influencing commodity partners to change customs and practices. These achievements are made possible by facilitating connections between a vast range of different partners along the value chain, which creates better communication, understanding, coordination, and collaboration. These evaluation results suggest it’s not enough to create support networks for producers. To ensure regional food systems and niche markets survive in Iowa, it is also necessary to create and sustain support networks for support providers themselves.”
It should be noted that one of these older CoPs, focused around Niche Pork, is coordinated by a non-university-based non-profit producers organization, Practical Farmers of Iowa. This fact has not hindered the group in attracting significant Extension and state agency CoP membership and support for the work.
Similar experiences are happening in the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN). Of the CoP members in over 20 states, half of them have “conventional” meat/food science and ag business extension backgrounds. But the CoP “meets them where they are” – the two co-coordinators work at land-grant universities, and we make sure to be very clear that this is an extension project, and the goal is to help them with their extension work, by sharing info and learning with others. It helps significantly that this project has been recognized as an eXtension community of practice (http://about.extension.org), a united effort of the U.S. land-grant university system.
CoPs are a new way of forming partnerships that have not usually existed in the past. These partnerships will be key to successfully creating a future with increased rural vitality and healthy food production. While many other ways may exist to proceed in this direction – and many ways should be explored – CoPs offer a proficient means and should be given more emphasis within sustainable agriculture research and outreach.