Connecticut may be best known as leaders in manufacturing and insurance, but one longstanding UConn program aims to help beef up the state’s meat industry.
The meat science program in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources teaches students about Connecticut’s unique industry profile while providing them with the skills to work anywhere. Established in the 1950s, the program continues to evolve to meet student and business needs.
Connecticut’s Unique Industry
Just like the state itself, the meat industry in Connecticut has an obvious difference from competitors in other parts of the country: size. Most Connecticut producers operate at a much smaller scale than in the Midwest, which has considerably more open land and less population density.
These different agricultural profiles have to do with history, geography, and corn, explains Joe Emenheiser, UConn Extension educator and animal science instructor.
“A lot of this is predicated on cheap food policy, and the cost of production and processing is cheaper where more land is available. All the costs between the animal level and the consumer level, they all matter,” Emenheiser says.
Historically, the meat industry developed first on the East Coast, often near cities. But as people moved westward, there was more space for raising livestock at a lower price. Plus, new transportation systems allowed food products to be shipped from the Midwest back East. Another big advantage the Midwest had over East Coast states like Connecticut is that it is much easier to grow corn, an important food source for livestock.
Large factory farming operations need to reliably produce near-identical cuts of meat for consumers in grocery stores. This means they employ an assembly-line workflow in which workers each perform one part of the meat production process. These plants can process up to 4,000 carcasses a day. They also have a narrower range of livestock breeds from which they get meat.
“When you’re producing a commodity and things have to fit in a certain relatively narrow window of specifications, that lends itself to a narrower window of genetics too,” Emenheiser says.
Industrial meat production such as this can operate at a scale that dwarfs those in New England. But the smaller-scale of states like Connecticut have advantages. More unique products, more customization, more breeds to choose from – these are all benefits Connecticut’s industry has over giant corporate producers, says Emenheiser. But the most important advantage, he says, is the opportunity for closer relationships between producers and consumers.
To put it in perspective, most plants in Connecticut will process only a few dozen (beef) carcasses a day. These plants fulfill custom orders from local farmers who will eat the meat themselves or engage in some small-scale direct-to-consumer sales. Under this model, the workers at Connecticut plants typically take part in all steps of processing, one carcass at a time, rather than handling only a single step in an assembly line.
Emenheiser says he regularly introduces examples that compare the industries in Connecticut and elsewhere in his extension and teaching. This allows producers and students to better understand the opportunities available in different locations.
“The majority of the industry is elsewhere,” Emenheiser says. “But we can still benefit from learning the science and we can still benefit from learning how the industry works all across the country, and all across the world for that matter.”
The animal science program at UConn also focuses on the science of how genetics and environmental factors impact the final meat product. The breed, climate, feed, management, and other variables all play a role that are incorporated into students’ educational experience.
An Engaging Education
CAHNR alum Megan Davenport (‘22, Neag ’23) says her experience in the animal science program provided her with an expansive view of the meat industry.
Davenport’s family has worked as dairy farmers for generations, meaning she grew up around the local livestock industry. Davenport was part of the agricultural program at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury where she focused on large animal science.
At UConn, Davenport continued to develop her knowledge of and interest in food and meat science as an animal science and agricultural and resource economics major. She says the courses she took at UConn, like livestock management and livestock and carcass evaluation, provided her with a deep understanding of multiple angles of the meat industry.
“Having a great professor who knows his stuff in the meat industry and having really fun interactive, hands-on classes made me fall in love with the industry even more,” Davenport says.
Davenport worked at a local meat processing facility in Litchfield throughout high school and her undergraduate career. Davenport packaged and labeled the meat cuts, and engaged in customer service.
“I appreciated being able to be a part of every step,” Davenport says.
Davenport she enjoyed the opportunity to put her knowledge to use and educate local consumers. She says she often found herself explaining how the production process works and answering their questions, leading to an interest in education.
Davenport is now working on her master’s degree in agriscience education at UConn Hartford through the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates Program. She wants to teach food and meat science, as well as large animal science courses at the high school level.
“I know my stuff in agriculture, I’ve experienced a lot of it first-hand, and I also love teaching people about it,” Davenport says. “I love telling people about how cool this industry is and how hard all these individuals are working to make the world go round and put food on the table for everybody.”
Preparing Students for Success, Anywhere
The meat science program at UConn helps connect students with the industry by bringing guest speakers into classes and reaching out to alumni, many of whom work in high-level positions within the meat industry.
“It’s very important that the student has a basic sense about meat production that they get in the classroom, and at the same time that they start to form their connections and get exposure to those industries is also really important,” says Chaoyu Zhai, assistant professor of animal science.
Emenheiser says the other layer of this approach is studying regional differences, especially as UConn’s faculty and curriculum is increasingly worldly, preparing students to take what they learn at UConn anywhere.
“Topics including animal harvesting, grading, inspection, processing, packaging, and curing are offered to students,” says Richard Mancini, associate professor. “The classes are designed to provide students with both practical and fundamental molecular principles associated with meat production.”
“I think it’s really important to be able to understand the things that are unique to Connecticut but be able to make it worldly,” says Emenheiser. “Everything that we do in teaching at UConn is about integrating science and industry and preparing students for a career anywhere along that spectrum,” Emenheiser says.
This work relates to CAHNR’s Strategic Vision area focused on Ensuring a Vibrant and Sustainable Agricultural Industry and Food Supply.
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