Wyoming’s first meat science degree will officially launch this fall at Central Wyoming College (CWC). The curriculum aims to train the next generation of local butchers and food scientists. Wyoming Public Radio’s Taylar Stagner spoke with program director Amanda Winchester about the program and what she hopes students will learn.

Amanda Winchester: It’s definitely the only one in the state, maybe one of the few in the country that has this particular type of program. Now they have full meat science programs at some universities, but they are getting into more complex programs than what we do. Ours is mainly about learning by doing to do everything from harvesting and manufacturing to quality and customer relations.

The main objective of the program is to teach students how to be well trained workers for industry. And so we’re trying to offer the one-semester program so that they get the skills that they can get and be a well-educated, knowledgeable employee, and be at a higher rate of pay than somebody that they should train and do all food safety and everything from scratch. Students can complete the certificate program and then complete the rest of their requirements for their associate degree. They can use it to go to college and get into meat science or animal science, go in and run a huge processing plant, they can become a USDA (States Department of Agriculture) inspector states) or state, and what it means roughly [is] that you are guaranteed a job.

Taylor Stagner: How do you prepare students for animal slaughter? I hear it’s a big contributor to burnout in this industry.

AW: It’s something that even my student who stayed with us, she had done on her farm in California. So she had. But we went to do some tours, and she kinda freaked out, she wasn’t sure she could do that. And I kind of told her that I wanted her to give it a shot.

It doesn’t suit everyone. Some students might jump in and decide, “It’s not for me, I don’t want to do that part of the course.” I can not do that. It’s probably fine. I will really try to encourage them. We’re not going to throw them in there and say, you know, ‘You’re all alone.’

They can watch, they can jump in there a bit, they can slowly get into it. And then if they’re done with things and they decide, “That’s not the aspect I want to address in the industry,” that’s what they decide to do. I know I can do it. But they could go into the making and still do well.

They will have the knowledge, they will have the skills, which will be beneficial for a small plant. But if they enter a bigger factory, they can choose what ending they want to do.

TS: Many of us are very separate from our food. Can you talk a bit about that? And in that separation, I think there’s a little disconnect.

AW: In reality, people don’t really realize that even grocery store meat comes from a live animal at some point. I think it’s part of the lack of education on their side and on our side because, you know, I think society, they have this misconception of what farmers and ranchers really are, what they do or how they treat their animals.

But yet they will go to the grocery store and continue to buy things. They don’t make the connection. I think it has to start at an early age, that kids have to learn that there’s a connection between, ‘Gee, the animal in the field is what we eat.’ I don’t think all kids need to know the whole process, but I do think they need to understand that these animals have a purpose.

I think it’s a real issue that we need to educate the public so that they better understand where our food comes from. And I really think our program within the college can try to help with that. I think everyone should. Especially during COVID, you had to learn that when you had scripts or there wasn’t always meat, or there wasn’t toilet paper, or there wasn’t not, you know, all these products, that it’s about knowing where our food is coming from and trying to get a better supply, more local supply, so we know what’s in it, that it’s of good quality and that it is available instead of relying on big companies to supply us with products.

TS: So there is now a non-profit organization at CWC that is USDA approved that processes meat locally as an educational tool, but also as a way to support the program. Can you tell me a bit about it? I believe it’s called the Rustler Cattle Company.

AW: The money is simply reinvested in program aid. It works all year round, and so they process and harvest all summer while we don’t have students and they will continue when we do. It’s a real business. But it’s still part of education, so we use it as a tool.