SOLDIERS GROVE - Soldiers Grove’s newest business, Solar Meats, held a ‘Sneak Peek’ event on Saturday, Oct. 27, which was attended by almost 60 interested citizens and producers.
The name of the business was inspired by its location in Soldiers Grove, known as the ‘Solar Village.’ But it is also a nod to the pasturing and grazing methods of production, which are known as efficient models for conversion of the solar energy captured in grass into meat and dairy products.
The business will focus on locally-produced meats from cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, elk and bison. The facility will not process poultry. The emphasis will be on providing slaughter and processing services to farmers for locally grown small lots. Eventually, they will also offer custom labelling. This will fill a critical service gap in our area. Eventually, the business will also offer certified organic processing.
Rich Sitarski recently completed the purchase of the old Swiss Valley Creamery building, and will rent space to Johanes. Johanes currently runs a mobile slaughtering business, and is looking to expand that operation with the facility’s cooler and freezer space. Eventually, in phase two, he will add in a sausage and smoking service.
Mike and Susan Mueller will be the other tenants in the facility. The Muellers will operate a retail space, focusing on locally-produced products, including meats from the slaughtering business.
The business launch timeline is that they hope to have the slaughtering and processing service up and running no later than the end of the year, and hopefully sooner. The smoking and sausage-making operation is projected to launch by spring of 2019, and by the end of 2019, the facility will be federally inspected and offer organic processing. The retail and value-added part of the business is scheduled to launch in the spring of 2019 as well.
Cynthia Olmstead, Driftless Brewery Business Development Manager, and Kickapoo Grazing Initiative Coordinator, helped to organize the event and spoke to the gathered citizens.
“I’m very excited about all the business development going on in Soldiers Grove right now,” Olmstead said. “Someone said to me the other day that between the brewery and this business, there is more construction going on per capita in the village than anywere else in the area.”
Olmstead said she was particularly pleased with the kinds of businesses that are coming to the village.
“Both businesses are supporting Wisconsin farmers,” Olmstead observed. “Solar Meats will bring locally-produced meats to market, and at the brewery we source many ingredients, including our honey and berries, locally as well.”
Retired Crawford County UW-Extension Agent Vance Haugen also attended the event.
“What’s really exciting about this business initiative is seeing people working together,” Haugen said. “When people come together around a common purpose, then it’s a win no matter what level of success the business may achieve.”
Mike Mueller, who has been instrumental in launching the ‘Driftless Back to the Land Cooperative’ of pastured pork producers shared a little bit of the history of how the Soldiers Grove business development project had come to be.
“Rich, Duane and I met at that first meeting we held in Seneca for the pastured pork co-op in December of 2016,” Mueller remembered. “We all recognized that access to processing would be the main barrier to bringing our products to market, and we started dreaming together.”
Sitarski told the group that they had looked at multiple different facility options, but knew the minute they saw the old creamery in Soldiers Grove that it was the right place.
“The facility is fairly modern and has good bones,” Sitarski explained. “It also has access to village sewer service and good water, and it’s in a good location right on the highway and across from the brewery.”
Duane Johanes has lots of experience in the slaughter and processing profession. In addition to his mobile slaughter business, he has also worked in the past for Premier Meats and Driftless Meats in Viroqua.
“A strong focus of this business will be humane treatment,” Johanes emphasized. “My philosophy is that an animal raised for meat should only have one bad day.”
Johanes explained the impacts on the village should be minimal as well.
“As long as the animals have food and water, they usually remain quite calm, and we would isolate any higher strung animals,” Johanes said. “And as far as the offal, this facility will have a holding tank for the offal, which will be pumped out and transported for disposal, so it will never come into contact with the local water.”
Johanes said the business will not take venison unless it is completely deboned for making sausage.
“I want to keep the focus of the business on farmers, Johanes said. “When I slaughter an animal, you will get the meat from your animal back, and I try to give the farmer every ounce of meat that I can.”
Susan Mueller shared her goals for the retail store and certified kitchen part of the business with event participants.
“My goals are to support the slaughter and processing business through retail sales, and make sure that local people have access to good meat,” Mueller said, “I also want to create a space where local growers can sell their produce, and eventually add in a weekly farmers market.”
Mueller says that her goal will be to capture sales from people who are travelling through the area as well as local residents. She also plans to create value-added products in the certified kitchen, for instance, frozen meals made out of locally-produced ingredients.
One participant asked Johanes if he thought that there would be a steady supply of meat animals for the business.
“There is an abundance of meat animals raised in this area, and I think this business is going to become way more than we expected,” Johanes said. “In the past year, my mobile slaughter business has exploded.”
Cynthia Olmstead summed up the opportunity well.
“In our area we have both the right producers and the right consumer base, and those are the key ingredients needed to make this business work.”
Sitarski told the group that his background is in financial management, and that will be a key skill that he contributes to the success of the business.
“In developing our business plan, I worked with the Small Business Association and they helped me run 8-10 different economic analyses,” Sitarski explained. “Once we had our plan, we went to the Soldiers Grove Economic Development Committee, and they welcomed us into the village and offered us help.”
Vance Haugen shared his years of experience in helping agricultural businesses get off the ground and running.
“Nothing in life is guaranteed, so in starting a business you have to assess what is ‘possible’ and what is ‘probable,’” Haugen said. “From the numbers I’ve seen, I would say that the outlook for this business’ success is looking probable, but you also need enthusiasm, good management, hard work and just a titch of luck.”
Mike Mueller explained that the business is intended to help remove access to processing as a barrier for local producers in bringing their products to market.
“Our area grows great food, but getting access to markets is the issue,” Mueller said. “This area has a great marketing story, and people from outside the area want to buy food produced here.”