Class of 2014 • Jennifer Dierkes is the general manager and one of three owners of McDonald’s Meats, a market and meat processing facility in Clear Lake, Minnesota. She began her career there in 1990 washing dishes while she was still in high school. “I have been part of helping grow this business from a very small butcher shop with a staff of five to a full-service meat market with 35 employees,” she says. Her favorite part of her job is the process of creating new products and helping staff grow and learn new things, she says—and her experience at CALS has enhanced those efforts: “The Master Meat Crafter course has helped immensely in my work. I learned much more about the science behind what we do every day. When you know that, troubleshooting the problems that arise becomes much easier.”
Class of 2016 • Vance Lautsbaugh is the production manager at Crescent Meats in Cadott, Wisconsin, where he deals with everything from scheduling day-to-day operations to HACCP/meat inspection, product formulations, employee training and troubleshooting when problems arise. “I enjoy being the manager and that everyone respects my judgment, but my favorite part of my job is making new products and formulations,” he says. “Making the best quality products that I can and hearing compliments from the customers when they try them is what drives me.”
Lautsbaugh finds that the Master Meat Crafter course helped deepen the knowledge and interests he’d developed as a food science student at UW–River Falls: “This class has helped me in so many ways, but most importantly it has given me more confidence when talking to customers and employees. Because I understand what is happening to the meat at all stages of production, I can explain it and teach others what I know.”
Class of 2012 • As the president of Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland, Wisconsin, Louie Muench has a lot on his plate. Besides being the head sausage maker, Muench oversees and manages all aspects of the business. His favorite area is product development as he has more than 100 kinds of brats. The Master Meat Crafter program increased Muench’s networking capability with both suppliers and alumni, which gives him more exposure and support when trying new methods and learning how to expand his business. When he isn’t working, Muench enjoys crosscountry skiing, hunting and fishing in the north woods.
Class of 2012 • Rick “RJ” Reams owns and operates RJ’s Meats & Groceries in Hudson, Wisconsin, working alongside his wife, Anne, and sons Anthony, Aaron and Joe. RJ’s is a fullservice retail meat market and producer of many varieties of sausage, ham, bacon and salami. While he originally started with fresh meats, Reams now really loves making sausage. The Master Meat Crafter program helped Reams immensely in two ways: it helped educate his staff in food safety and why things are done certain ways, and it got him making Italian salami with wine, a product that is now shipped all over the United States. In his free time, Reams enjoys fishing and learning more about the meat industry.
Class of 2012 • Jake Sailer co-owns Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing Inc., in Elmwood, Wisconsin, along with his father and mother and his wife, Leslie. As a fifth-generation meat cutter, Sailer has great expertise in the cured and smoked meats that he produces. He’s won numerous awards at state, national and international levels with such products as bacon, hams and smoked beef. The Master Meat Crafter program has given him a better understanding of the science behind meat processing and has allowed him to grow relationships and friendships with others in the industry. When he’s not working, Sailer enjoys spending time at a cabin with family and friends, flying an airplane and cutting wood.
Class of 2016 • Ashley Sutterfield is an associate manager of sales development at Tyson Foods, Inc. in Bentonville, Arkansas. In this role, she manages projects as a liaison between the customer, the Tyson sales team and their internal business units. Sutterfield’s favorite moments are when she can translate her scientific knowledge into lay terms for the people she works with. Some of that knowledge came from the Master Meat Crafter program, which Sutterfield says was “invaluable to my career as I developed as a meat scientist and made connections within the industry.” In her free time, Sutterfield enjoys traveling, advocating for the tiny house movement and training for Ironman Wisconsin 2016.
Class of 2016 • As a supervisor in the sausage production kitchen at Usinger’s Famous Sausage in Milwaukee, Swart is responsible for setting up the product flow and making sure all production is finished for the day. He started working for a smaller sausage company during summer breaks from school and collected experience and knowledge there before moving to Usinger’s. Swart enjoys being able to share the reasons why they do things in a particular way—information he learned by taking the Master Meat Crafters program. In his free time, Swart likes to play bass and listen to music.
Class of 2016 • Kelly Gall Washa is the owner and operator of Grand Champion Meats in Foley, Minnesota, which processes beef, pork, buffalo, alpaca, deer, elk and other wild game. She is a second-generation meat cutter who is accomplished in both cured and smoked meats, including snack sticks, jerky, summer sausage and Braunschweiger. She is a past president of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors and enjoys making and maintaining industry connections. When she’s not working, Washa loves spending time with her two children and looks forward to training a third generation of meat cutters.
Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.
“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.
“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”
But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.
He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.
That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”
The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.
But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.
Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.
Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.
That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.
Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.
The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.