“Before COVID, you could call your local butcher and get a harvest slot the next week. But now you need to call a year in advance.” 

A mid-pandemic conversation with a Wyoming meat processor shed light on the frustrations of finding and retaining skilled labor for meat shops—setting Sierra Jepsen on a path of “building better butchers.”

FROM FARM TO MEAT LAB

Raised in the rural farming community of Amanda, Ohio, Sierra grew up on a farm where her family grew row crops and raised beef cattle. Post-high school, she followed her interest in the beef industry to the state capital, attending The Ohio State University in Columbus. “I was an ag business major and loved animal science, but never wanted to be a veterinarian,” she explained, instead discovering her passion in the process: meat science.

Alongside her coursework, Sierra began working at the OSU Meat Lab. Here, she dove deeper into meat science—from competing on the university’s meat judging team to co-founding the Ohio Collegiate Cattle Association and Buckeyes4Beef program. This work presented her an opportunity: moving west for a four-year stint coaching meat judging at the University of Wyoming and managing their Cowboy Branded Meats program.

LEARNING & TEACHING DURING COVID

As she was coaching, teaching, and supporting small local meat processors, COVID-19 started. Back at home in Ohio, this put pressure on her family’s freezer beef business, which struggled to secure harvest and processing slots with their local butcher. Across the West, she worked with meat processors who were burning out from both the rising demand for local meat processing and the challenge of hiring and keeping proficient butchers.

Sierra had an idea: if she could motivate college students to be excited about meat science, she could train others too. She had aspired for years to attain a master’s degree in meat science. Fueled by the idea of starting a butcher school, Sierra reconnected with Dr. Phil Bass, a former internship mentor, and then set out to attend graduate school at the University of Idaho.

STARTING BUTCHER SOLUTIONS

Coming up dry on Google searches for butcher schools she could join, Sierra saw a niche. After completing her master’s degree in meat science in 2022, she launched her traveling butcher school, Butcher Solutions. “I wanted to be able to go to meat processors and meet them literally where they were at … to work in their facilities, with their carcasses, and with their people.”

She began traveling to meat processing plants to teach butchers how to craft quality meat products “both for the livestock producers who are trying to get the most out of their meat product, and the butcher who is trying to make the most money and deliver the best product to the customer—who expects the best product.”

“I wanted to be able to go to meat processors and meet them literally where they were at … to work in their facilities, with their carcasses, and with their people.”

Sierra Jepsen, Owner, Butcher Solutions

FINDING THE PRODUCER PARTNERSHIP

Post-graduation, Sierra planned to return to Mountain Time and headquarter in Livingston, Montana. While finishing her degree and formulating ideas for a traveling butcher school, she conducted a feasibility study to learn how this service would interest Montana meat processors. An article published by Meatingplace caught her eye.

“I found that in Livingston, right up the road from where I was going to be moving, there was The Producer Partnership, which had a facility that was built by Friesla,” she said. “I had a conversation with Matt [Pierson, their President and Founder] and he told me all about their facility that was built to provide protein to food pantries and to school districts, and that they were using a Modular System.”

Sierra hadn’t previously visited or worked in a Modular Meat Processing System so she wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I was surprised when I first walked into The Producer Partnership at how spacious the inside was—I truly was,” she recounted. “It floored me: from the outside, it was such a small footprint, and then you walk inside and you feel like you’re in a true meat processing facility.”

CONNECTING WITH FRIESLA

After she began supporting The Producer Partnership team with both cutting and training, Sierra connected with Friesla’s team. Her skillset and knowledge of processing and training inside The Producer Partnership’s PS-1 System was an ideal lead-up to supporting other Friesla clients with butcher training—from MTXBeef and their PS Starter System in Texas to Harrison Harvesting and their PS-3 System in Kentucky.

Before working in Friesla’s meat processing modules, Sierra had worked in scores of brick-and-mortar meat processing facilities: small and large, new and old, USDA and state-inspected. After working in several Friesla Systems, she said “it was easy to see how the customization of these Modular Units is really important to expansion,” in contrast to renovating or adding onto tired, “difficult to change” facilities that were “built in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.”

MEAT INDUSTRY LESSONS LEARNED

The meat industry lessons Sierra learned through the pandemic—from her struggle to book harvest slots for her family’s freezer beef business to her experience supporting independent, highly-demanded local meat processors—are still fresh in her mind.

“COVID flipped a switch: with the [increase in] folks wanting local meat products and then, were harvest slots available? And not only was that availability really difficult to get a hold of, but it was also exhausting our butchers and those local meat processors.”

The growing consumer demand for local meat products has implications for all parties in this supply chain, she highlighted—from meat producers to meat processors and the end consumer.

“When a farmer or rancher brings a livestock animal to that meat processor, that farmer and rancher wants to know the animal was handled with animal welfare in mind. They want to know that those products are aged correctly. They want to know they are cut in a way that the customer will recognize the cuts and that when they have a meat product, that they enjoy it and that they’re able and interested in ordering that meat product again and again and again.

SERVING CUSTOMERS BY TRAINING BUTCHERS

From Sierra’s vantage point as a butcher trainer, a key component of delighting the end customer is properly equipping the workforce that will harvest, cut, and package the meat that customers will buy.

“The butcher is the last line of defense to make sure that the meat product is excellent before it goes into the hands of the customer, and the customer then is judging the livestock producer on what the butcher is doing—and so they [the butchers] want to please both sides.” 

“That’s something that I feel very passionately about,” Sierra furthered, “and it’s really important to me when I’m training butchers, and I guess why I get excited to work with butchers: they have the opportunity to do things right.”

“The butcher is the last line of defense to make sure that the meat product is excellent before it goes into the hands of the customer, and the customer then is judging the livestock producer on what the butcher is doing—and so they [the butchers] want to please both sides.”

Sierra Jepsen, Owner, Butcher Solutions

Honoring the customers who buy your meat products, she contended, starts with honoring the hard work of the butchers who steward the final stages from pasture to plate.

Smiling MTX Beef butchers fabricate and breakdown beef carcasses on polytop cutting tables in their Friesla Cut & Package Module.

“Getting folks excited to cut meat every day is challenging. But if you pull out all the stops and you give them a good work environment, and you give them a mission, and they have all the tools in place to make that possible, and they’re able to feel confident and competent at the same time, that’s going to be a job that they’re actually excited to show up to every single day.”

Visit Butcher Solutions here. Learn more about Friesla’s Ecosystem of Services here.