When the coronavirus pandemic started disrupting the nation's meat supply chains this spring, the University of Wisconsin–Madison's swine program soon found itself among the affected operations. The program, which houses around 1,500 pigs at a time at Arlington Agricultural Research Station, focuses on nutritional studies that support the hog industry in Wisconsin and across the Midwest. When the pigs reach market weight, they are typically sent to harvest at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa, but not this spring.
The Tyson plant, dealing with worker shortages and a shut-down due to COVID-19 infections, couldn't take the university's hogs. At the same time, the demand for meat products at grocery stores and food pantries was rising.
"These processing facilities were shutting down and the other ones couldn't pick up the slack—because the limiting factor is cooler space (to hang carcasses)," says Jamie Reichert, manager of the swine facility at the Arlington station. "Although the UW–Madison campus was largely shut down at the time, I made the case that we have animal processing capability and cooler space at the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory. So let's process our pigs that have nowhere to go and help supply meat to our community. Let's be part of the solution here."
During a virtual meeting about the upcoming opening of campus' new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building, Jeff Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the UW–Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, happened to mention the university's surplus hog situation. Also on the call was Al Gunderson, vice president of Vita Plus, the Madison-based animal feed and technology company.
"After the call, Al independently reached out to us," says Sindelar. "He said, 'Hey, we've got this new Vita Plus Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project, and I think it may have good alignment [to help your situation].'"
The purpose of the Vita Plus project, which was launched in April with a $100,000 commitment from the company, is to purchase dairy, beef and pork products from producers and contribute them to local food pantries, school-based meal assistance programs and other local food security efforts. The majority of the funding had already been used to support Vita Plus customers and their local communities, but some remained.
The UW partnership was quickly given the green light, and Gunderson worked with the UW team to help establish and manage the process. Reichert helped develop protocols to safely harvest the surplus hogs in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences' Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory, along with Dillon Walker, MBL plant operations manager, and Mitch Monson, MBL retail operations manager.
"We all wear N95 masks and do extra sanitation," says Walker. "And all of the stations are more than six feet apart, so we all have our own spots on the harvest floor."
Gunderson recruited Jerry Stoddard of Stoddard's Meat Market in Cottage Grove to help out by picking up the carcasses from campus for further processing at his operation. It's a critical piece of the partnership—the step where carcasses are turned into familiar cuts such as chops, roasts, ribs, brats and sausage. Vita Plus employees drive the finished, frozen pork products to area food banks, and the company's Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project helps cover the costs of the meat and processing.
"It turned out to be a great way to bring all of this together," says Gunderson, a graduate of the university's meat and animal science program. "It's wonderful to have this pork that was in jeopardy of not being utilized go to people who need it and help the community."
In May, the UW team completed two harvests of 15 hogs each. The third and final harvest for the project on June 29 will mark a milestone for the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. It will be the last harvest to take place in the old MBL facility before operations move to campus' new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building.
When all is said and done, the department will have provided around 8,700 pounds of meat to more than a dozen area food banks through the Vita Plus partnership. For the pantries receiving the pork, it's a welcome gift.
"Pork is something we don't always have, so this was an awesome donation," says Ruth Ann Waugh, volunteer coordinator of the Poynette Area Community Food Pantry. "We serve the elderly, young families, the sick, people who've experienced some kind of crisis—anybody. Many people do receive some kind of [government] assistance, but we are that fill-in. When their shelves get low, we're right there to help."
For the team involved in making these pork donations happen, there's a deep sense of satisfaction in the work.
"Everybody really has the attitude that this is going to a great cause," says Gunderson.