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Women in Ag Network - June/July Feature

by Amber Roberts, Extension Educator
Lindsey Fulton
Lindsey Fulton

While times remain unprecedented for farmers and livestock producers, the Women in Ag Network is continuing our featured women interview series. This month, we highlight a butcher who stepped up to help her community and livestock producers affected by processing plant closures. Lindsey Fulton, owner of Blondie's Butchers in Wanamingo, discusses how she started her business, manages stress, and has stepped up to help local producers throughout the processing plant closures.

WAGN: Tell us about Blondie's Butchers and your career. 
I purposely went into this business. I had previously worked on a cattle ranch in Montana and we slaughtered on the ranch for employees. I was burnt out from the medical world, and my father asked if I wanted to come back to Minnesota and buy the for-sale butcher shop in town. I decided to jump in; if we failed, we could liquidate and wash our hands at the end of the day. When we bought the place 6 years ago, I had a lot to learn in the industry. My saving grace was that I was from the area, so people knew my reputation and my family. When I made mistakes, it was because I was learning, not because I was intentionally doing something wrong. The community really rallied around me and allowed me to go through the process of learning. I don’t think I would be here if it was any other place. Here I am, 6 years later.

Most meat lockers that you see are kind of boring, they have plaques on the wall that are screwed everywhere and it’s not entertaining. When you walk into my place, you can’t quit looking. People bring stuff to the meat locker and they come to screw their trinkets into the wall, it’s very fun. We also painted the place pink because I’m in the middle of nowhere. Many of my counterparts are in big cities or on major highways where their presence is well known without much media or advertisement. I had to get creative on how to direct people to Wanamingo, a small town. I just put it out there, it’s not like it’s my favorite color, but pink has done me well.  

WAGN: How have COVID-19 affected your business?
At the start, everything was so emotional, and everyone was in shock. I didn’t know what to think. You’re trying to process and thinking, oh my gosh this is really happening, we’re going to be euthanizing millions of hogs.

As the situation progressed, I had called my hog farmers (I usually don’t start killing until August because we cater from March to August). I reached out to my local pig farmers and I said “if [COVID] progresses and the plant's shutdown, give me a call. I have no-kills booked, I’m not going to book anything, just call me.” Two nights later I get a phone call from one of my main customers and he said, “the [processing plant] just flipped my semi-trucks full of 3,000 hogs around on I-90.” I thought okay, let’s see if we can push these hogs to our local consumer - whether it was a grocery store or backup restaurants -we would service whatever we could.  I was told to post on Facebook and see if we can flip some custom hogs. I thought, let’s just get something started. The least that I could do is take one hog out of each pen and leave more room for the rest to grow. I decided to just see if we can ride this out without euthanizing.  Hog producers put the call out on Facebook, and it went viral. I had to get up in the middle of the night and shut my phone off because it had 700 shares overnight. Immediately 500 hogs sold. Everybody wanted to help, which is great, but it was uncharted waters. None of us had experienced this before so it’s been a dance.

We’ve been taking it day by day. One farmer will say, “we are starting to get some of our hogs shipped. Can you help another farmer in my co-op, he’s going to have to euthanize?” Then we try to go help them out. The frustrating thing is if all the processors in the state stopped, [local butchers] would only manage to handle one percent of the hog population. We’re on the losing battle, but at one point we came to the realization, we’re doing something. I think as a woman, we take on more. We think, “it’s not enough, we got to do more” and then you find yourself overwhelmed and overstressed. We’ve just had to step back and realize we are doing the best we can, and the community has been great in stepping up. This isn’t normal for us, but we’re trying to stop as many hogs from going to waste as possible.

WAGN: What are some of the ways that you are managing stress and staying positive?I asked the same question at the meat locker, “How do we manage stress around here?” We obviously keep beer in the cooler and ibuprofen is on the wrapping table at all times. We’ve realized when you work this hard and this fast, you learn not to take each other personally, especially when one is tired and might be a little crabby. I’ve tried to be more protective of my employees and say you’re exhausted and need a break. We joke a lot with each other, we do our best to keep it fun, mistakes are going to get made.  I think the main thing is not to give in to the negativity. Correct the problem and move on.

Consumers are challenging at times; they have such a huge disconnect and they don’t always get it. They know that they like cheap meat, they have proven that time and time again. Customers depend on the grocery store; they are very codependent and now they’re in panic mode because they are paying $10 for a pound of hamburger. They want a quarter of beef and don’t understand why they aren’t getting 220lbs because that’s what their quarter hung at. There’s been a lot of re-educating, re-directing, and talking with farmers about educating their consumers.  On a normal basis, I tend to find us being the middleman between the producer and the consumer. I get to educate both on what I see in their animals, what could they improve through a nutritionist or geneticist, and what’s the consumer looking for. Any way that we can help the smaller farmers get a little more bang for their buck. 

WAGN: Is there anything you’d like to share with other women in agriculture?
I feel like women have always been perceived as the anomaly, the hidden figure in agriculture. I have so much admiration for our foremothers and grandmothers, they’re truly the backbone of agriculture. I hope women don’t ever feel like they are a minority, an anomaly, or the hidden figure. Because above all we are the real producers, the caretakers. I think that when we look at our foremothers, they are always the women that are picking up the pieces and holding things together, the supporters. They are 50% of the decision making, sometimes the dominant decision-maker. They are the ones that hold up traditions, they have the stronger faith than just about anybody. The ones that keep the communities running, the churches going, and the ethics and the morals. I hope above anything, what I want to share with other women in agriculture is that we see you. In the society that we’re seeing right now, I think women are a positive resource to a world that’s confused and pained right now. We see you. It’s not the easy job, it’s the grunt job and they have to be tougher. Even my husband, if the pieces start falling apart, he says, ‘you can’t lose it, you’re the one that holds everything together.’ I always laughed because he’s a very stoic and a got-it-all-together man. I don’t think women are always praised for their roles, but I really think they’ve been the backbone and will continue to always be the backbone.

Thank you Lindsey for sharing your time with the Women in Ag Network. To learn more about WAGN visit z.umn.edu/WAGN.


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