Carving into the meat market

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cattle producers and others found it difficult to find openings at area butchers. A local businessman saw an opportunity to open a new meat locker in LaHarpe.

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July 22, 2021 - 9:50 AM

From left, Virgle “Red Bone” Valentine, Chris Weston and Gene Weatherbie are the proprietors of Bovine and Swine Meat Locker on the outskirts of LaHarpe, at the intersection of 2400 Street and U.S. 54. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

LAHARPE — One of the myriad byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way it hampered production at feedlots across the country, was the cost of beef.

Just as importantly, it also meant great difficulty for cattle producers to get their animals processed.

Gene Weatherbie was one of those cattlemen — forced to hold on to his livestock longer than normal as he waited for openings at area butchers.

“I would drive by this place every day, and I knew it was here,” Weatherbie said.

The place was a small meat processing facility on the outskirts of LaHarpe, built by Shawn Gumfory, but idle for the past 20 years.

The availability gave Weatherbie an idea. He reached out to Chris Weston of Moran, who had worked briefly at a butcher shop in Richmond, about a partnership.

Over the next several months, Weatherbie and Weston worked to secure funding and equipment to reopen the facility.

It took a while.

Their first application for a food systems grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was denied, but a second one was approved late last year.

That was the opening they needed to create Bovine & Swine Meat Locker, at the intersection of 2400 Street and U.S. 54.

Joining the operation, as the chief butcher, is Virgle “Red Bone” Valentine, great-nephew of the late Lee Gumfory, former Iola city commissioner and longtime owner of Zero Packing in Iola.

Valentine grew up around the Zero plant, and worked for years as a butcher there until its doors closed more than 20 years ago. (In the years since, Valentine worked at Russell Stover Candies in LaHarpe.)

“We were classmates,” Weatherbie said of Valentine. “I’ve known him all my life, and I knew he was available.”

Meanwhile, Weston completed Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) training, necessary for producers to ensure food safety in meat processing facilities.

AND THEN there was the matter of fixing up the old butcher shop, which was used privately by the Gumforys for their own cattle and for deer harvests.

“The building was in pretty good shape, but there was no equipment,” Weston explained.

With the grant funds in place, Weatherbie and Weston were able to acquire new refrigeration units for the cooler, as well as an industrial saw, grinder and other equipment. (The saw and tables came from the old Country Mart grocery store in Iola.)

A few maintenance items were necessary, such as fixing the ceiling as well. They also had to build an office and storage room onto the building.

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