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Clay Center Lockerexpands

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
Beef carcasses are hung in the cooler at the new Junction City, Kan., locker plant, officially called Clay Center Locker JC Plant.
Photo by Macey Dieckman

“It’s overwhelming, it’s tough to catch up. We re-opened the other processing plant, and it’s still busy.”

That’s what it’s been like to own a beef processing facility, to get swamped with phone calls, then to open a second locker plant, and try to outpace yourself to meet public demand for beef during the pandemic.

After getting deluged with business and daily racing against the clock to accommodate beef customers, owner Brad Dieckmann at the Clay Center (Kansas) Locker Plant recently opened his second processing plant located just 35-minutes away in Junction City, Kan., called the Clay Center Locker JC Plant. The need for increased processing space became apparent during the peak of COVID, when business at the Clay Center plant rapidly increased. Suddenly, the Clay Center plant was instantly booked up well into 2021, with a waiting list into 2022, as were other locker plants in the region and across the country.

So, Dieckman put a fast plan in motion to re-open the Junction City building, which had once been a processing facility, and was then a warehouse, and then used for other projects, until it closed nearly two decades ago.

“Junction (the Junction City plant) was used before for processing and then we closed it in 2003 because the last of the major smaller hog producers got out of business,” he said. “So, then we consolidated everything back to Clay Center and we’ve always done different things there. We have now re-opened it to accommodate the demand.”

The new again facility, which was outfitted over the past few months with all new updated refrigeration systems, is now open and in full operation.

“We’re overwhelmed,” Dieckman said back in May, in the midst of the pandemic peak. “We’re still overwhelmed now,” he added on Oct. 26, even after hiring an additional 20 people.

“With all the part-time help, we have over 50 employees. We had been at 35 employees before we re-opened the second plant. We added 20 jobs,” Dieckmann said.

GOOD NEWS

“We’re glad they re-opened,” said Allen Dinkel, Junction City manager. “It’s great to have that many more jobs, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Also, it’s great for people who want to buy cattle by the half, or have one harvested. We’re all excited to have them here.”

He is also an auctioneer on weekends and a former county agent with an animal sciences degree, has 250 employees and now more of them are looking to buy a half of beef, which they can have done right at home, said Dinkel, who grew up on a cattle operation and raised hogs.

“I am hearing however, how deer hunters are having difficulty getting their deer processed,” Dinkel said. “Meat lockers usually made a big living processing deer in October and November.”

For the immediate future local deer hunters will have to find other means of processing their prey. “We’re actually not even going to do deer processing now. We have too much cattle and hogs.”

Other plans for the Clay Center location are adding a slaughterhouse floor, new offices and a processed product and retail store, where beef jerky, summer sausage and bratwurst will be sold. However, due to so many bookings, those additions are temporarily on hold. “It’s just been incredibly busy,” said Dieckmann. “But, we will have more jobs when that opens. We will hire more people.”

Currently, to keep up with the demand for processing beef at both of their locations, some employees are traveling back and forth from one plant to the other.

The Clay Center locker plant has 9,000 square feet including the additions on the original building. The newly re-opened Junction City plant has about 6,000 square feet. The plan is to keep both processing plants. As far as any other plans, Dieckman said, “This is it for now. I’m waiting for plants in the whole region to get caught up.” Then, he’ll figure out the next plan, going forward.

Along with keeping up with demand for meat processing, Dieckman is also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and making sure workers are protected. “We’re considered an essential business, and we have different regulations.”

Junction City is also proud to have Fort Riley. a U.S. Army installation and home of the 1st Infantry Division nearby. Fort Riley’s website says there are approximately 15,000 active duty service members with more than 18,000 family members, 29,000 veterans and retirees and 5,600 civilian employees who live in the region and/or work at the post.

The combination of the re-opened locker plant, and having Fort Riley nearby have both contributed dramatically to the local economy this year.

“Our sales tax numbers are off the charts high,” Dinkel said. “For the first 10 months of 2020, local sales tax revenue is about 12 percent higher than last year. We’ve collected over a million dollars more than last year just in the first 10 months of the year. We didn’t shutdown like a lot of people. We wanted to stay safe, and still have the local economy. Even though we got concerned about COVID, we stayed cautiously concerned, but not ‘lock the door-concerned’ “he added.

A sausage plant in nearby Smithfield stayed safe and used precautions, Dinkel said. “It’s amazing they’ve had no COVID. They processed meat several days a week for 12 hour days, which meant more money in people’s pockets.”

He said they have just become resourceful, rather than scared. “We’ve been aggressive about finding a way to have the swimming pool open this summer. We changed things a little; we were careful. It wasn’t just one thing we did — just a lot of factors,” said the city manager.

When demand for local beef increased as COVID hit, north central Kansas livestock producers Kurt and Kelli Childs, and their business partners Clay and Jaci Siemsen in Belleville, Kan., were vigilant about booking dates at the local locker plants.

“We were able to secure some butcher dates early in the outbreak,” Kurt Childs said. “We booked dates for this current fall period, and for spring of 2021.”

Although running not one, but two incredibly busy processing plants, is still overwhelming, Dieckman has enthusiastic backing from his employees and ardent support from Dinkel during the pandemic, and beyond.

“You still have to be careful,” Dinkel said. “People are staying home, which helps. Our attitude in the community has been how can we adjust — work through it, and not have it rule us.” ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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