Hardt Purcella tosses a cut into a bin that will be made into hamburger after removing the scraps. Hardt, Brandon Purcella's son, has been working at the processing business for a few years now. Brandon says that they can work through about one beef per person per day. But because they are so busy, they are working extra hours and finishing extra carcasses on top of the five that the five cutting room employees would normally finish.
With a total of six employees, Purcella’s Meat Processing is both understaffed and heavily booked. Brandon Purcella says he has two open positions right now if he could find more people with the right kind of training. More employees means more cutting completed each day - speed that would be helpful with their full schedule.
Brandon Purcella, owner and founder of Purcella’s Meat Processing, removes a section of beef for cutting. Purcella’s opened in 2016 in the same location as a former processing facility. After serious renovations that included removing and repouring the foundation, today’s facility was built, including a front office space, coolers and cutting rooms.
Erynn Hartman makes a reservation for a walk-in customer to bring their livestock in for processing the week of Feb. 4th, 2021. As large, national plants shut down around the country because of COVID-19, business has shifted back to small, local facilities like the Purcellas. Brandon says they normally only schedule a few months in advance, but are already scheduled through February this year.
Consumer health specialist Vanessa Gall plugs here ears while a cow is butchered before returning to the room. Gall is based in Johnson County and observes and inspects the processes for the meat that is to be state certified. Gall has been working in the area for two and a half years and now works with the Purcella’s on Tuesday and Wednesday each week.
After an animal is butchered, the carcass is drained, skinned and hung in a cooler. The carcasses are kept in the cooler for at least 14 days before being removed for cutting and packaging. Customers can request that their meat hangs longer than 14 days. Purcella’s divides their days so that Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are reserved for cutting and packaging, while Tuesday’s and Thursday’s are reserved for butchering, and work with hams and bacon. On butchering days, cleaning is constantly in motion to keep the tools and space clean.
Brandon Purcella, right, talks with James Miller and inspector Vanessa Gall about future scheduling. They received a number of animals to be state inspected and were figuring out when Vanessa would need to come back after the two week hang time.
Eric Felbeck came into Purcella’s hoping to get a hog processed in the near future. With business scheduled all the way through February, there was no chance of bringing an animal in immediately. Having used the Purcella’s to process beef in the past, Felbeck was glad to hear that they had so much business. “They cut a beef for me earlier this year and it was just spectacular,” Felbeck said of his experience. “They had pigs at the sale barn and I wanted to see if they could butcher it if I brought it in, but I just don’t have time to do it myself.”
James Miller walks through the hanging cooler after moving scraps out of the cutting room. The scraps will be dumped at the landfill and include anything that isn’t kept by the owner of the animal. The cooler is kept at a temperature just above freezing so that the meat doesn't spoil while it hangs. The cooler continues to grow as business remains steady. Brandon pointed out that they can butcher much faster than they can cut, so they make sure to only schedule as much as they can cut.
James Miller rests against the door as everyone else clocks out for the day at 7 p.m. so he can finish the cleaning - which takes him another two or two and a half hours. The day starts at 7 a.m. for everyone at Purcella’s and goes “till the work is done,” according to Brandon Purcella. Normally they would have finished up around 4 p.m. said employee Shannon Miller, but they have been working longer hours recently because of all the extra business.
Isidro Fergoso clocks out for the day at 7 p.m. after finishing with cleaning equipment in the back. “It’s supposed to be slow as heck this time of year, or at least that’s what they told me,” Isidro said, since he has only been working at Purcella’s since January.
While the rest of the team works on prepping the equipment and getting ready to get started for the day, Brandon Purcella grabs the cut sheets for the 13 hogs that they are working on for the day. Each hog has a different cut sheet filled out by the owner explaining which cuts and how much they want to get out of the animal.
Brandon Purcella, left, and James Miller laugh about a phone call between two of their coworkers while working on a hog on a Saturday morning. The group normally doesn’t work on Saturdays, but because of the high demand this week was an exception. Because hogs are so much smaller than cattle, they are faster to cut. Brandon estimated that each hog would take about 20 minutes once they got started. They had 13 to do on this Saturday.
After months of constant change, the effects of COVID-19 continue tobe felt bylocal businesses like Purcella's Meat Processing.
The normal wait to bring an animal in at Purcella's is a few months. Now, you won't get in until at least February. The team, which was already down two employees, is working longer days and the occasional weekend to keep up with the rush.
"We can schedule a lot more," says owner Brandon Purcella about the requests they are receiving. "People are calling every day but we can just only do so much."
Large meat processing plants across the country have been forced todramaticallydecrease production if not close entirely following COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. Shutdowns stretched nationwide, closing facilities from Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, to JBS USA in Colorado and National Beef Packing, Co. in Iowa.
As meat prices are beginning to rise in grocery stores and as consumers are turning their focus back to buying meat locally, small meat processors are seeing the increase in business - and in hours.