When graduate student Arion Thiboumery discovered that his research hypothesis was off target, he experienced the deep frustration—and beauty—of scientific discovery. But instead of giving up, he came up with a life-changing innovation: establishing one of the most comprehensive stakeholder networks in livestock agriculture.
 
Thiboumery assumed, as most did in agriculture, that there are simply too few small-scale meat processors to service producers. What Thiboumery actually discovered was that the industry as a whole was out of sync and in need of better coordination and resources.
 
Today, at least in the Midwest, says Thiboumery, there is now adequate meat processing for small-scale producers.
 
This is due, in large part, to better industry-wide coordination and information springing from Thiboumery’s SARE-funded graduate research at Iowa State University. Thiboumery leveraged this initial SARE grant into $500,000 worth of assistance from other federal agencies, nonprofits and universities to engage stakeholders from across the nation. Together with Lauren Gwin of Oregon State University, he started a working group that evolved into the 500-member strong Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network. This is, today, a vibrant, national community of stakeholders housed on eXtension, the online home of USDA’s Extension Service. The working group’s efforts have garnered media attention far and wide, and, as he frames it, put “small meat lockers on the map.”
 
During his 2007-2008 SARE grant, Thiboumery found a need for networking among small-scale meat processors, and formed the Small Meat Lockers Working Group. He then chose three lockers as case studies, working in their factories to truly understand the issues in play. He discovered, for example, an aging processor population and extreme boom-and-bust seasonality that put processors out of business.
 
In the end, he thought simply expanding processing capacity might not be what producers and processors needed most. “The initial work was fruitful because it showed us that as you turn it all over you see that there is so much more there. We needed empirical evidence.”
 
It became apparent to Thiboumery that stakeholders did not have the information they needed to run an efficient business, nor did they have sufficient networking opportunities with producers, consumers, processors, regulators and other stakeholders, which would help them learn new approaches, avoid pitfalls and promote their businesses. So Thiboumery filled the gap. He held workshops on alternative pricing structures, facilitating networking and building off-season awareness. He produced cost-structure spreadsheets for processors and conducted surveys to show current pricing and practice trends. And he wrote the Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook, now used by extension agents and universities across the Midwest, and the carnivore’s bible, The Whole Animal Buying Guide.
 
Today, Thiboumery calls himself a “recovering academic,” having chosen to walk his own talk instead. He shed his academic life and today is vice president of Lorentz Meats, a mid-scale meat processor in Minnesota. The future for small-scale meat processing? Thiboumery has some predictions, but one, he says, is certain: To remain viable, the small-scale processing industry will need a next generation, like him, to embrace the trade.

From the Field
Profiles of Agricultural Innovation

Arion Thiboumery