Northeast Iowa Food & Farm Coalition

Face of a Food Champion: Merrill Angell

Merrill Angell provides an important service by incorporating local meats into school lunches in northeast Iowa. His meat processing business, County Line Locker in Riceville, began processing pork for local schools in spring 2014.

County Line Locker
The Northeast Iowa Funders Network tours County Line Locker in Riceville in 2013.

“I was always curious when people talked about local foods for schools, [but] they didn’t talk about meat,” Angell said. He thought, “Why not supply our local schools [with meat]?”

Angell bought the business in 2007. A fire destroyed the locker a year later. While this was a setback, it gave Angell an opportunity to rebuild for today’s business. “We’re probably one of the most up-to-date lockers around,” he said.

After the fire, Angell researched locker design by visiting other plants and talking to experts. As a result, County Line Locker is designed to keep animals comfortable prior to slaughter, be energy efficient and facilitate smooth employee work flow—all while ensuring a safe, quality product. The plant is state-inspected and in the process of becoming USDA-inspected, which will allow farmers to sell meat across state lines.

Since completing the new facility in 2009, County Line Locker has continually increased in business. This was made possible by a loyal, reliable workforce that came back to work after the fire.

“We kept all our employees. They went out and found part-time jobs or I helped them find work at the elevator until we opened back up,” Angell said. The locker retained the original seven employees until a year ago, when one found employment elsewhere.

Processing pork for schools began with a conversation with Nick McCann from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. With support from a Leopold Center grant, McCann had given classes and worked one-on-one with small meat processors in Iowa, which included a class for locker owners in northeast Iowa.

Angell had told McCann that his locker’s slow season is in the spring and he was looking for ways to make extra income during that time. “We tried a few things back then on a small scale, one hog at a time," Angell said. “Then he called me up last winter to talk about what we could do for schools.”

By spring 2014, County Line Locker was processing 10 hogs a week for K-12 schools and Luther College, utilizing the whole animal for an order instead of just processing cuts and selling the inventory. The pork is pre-ordered, and the hogs usually are processed into bacon, pork roasts and ground pork, and then delivered by the Iowa Food Hub.

Schools are happy with the quality of the product. “The school cooks said it smelled so much more like pork than what they were getting [before]. It’s fresh meat.”

Angell is researching tools to process pork more efficiently so County Line Locker can continue to supply schools while meeting the demand for custom processing, which increases in the fall. If he is successful, Angell expects to hire at least one new employee.

About this story

This story was produced to accompany a report documenting the impact of the local food industry on Iowa’s economy associated with the efforts of the Regional Food Systems Working Group. Consult the statewide report: 2013 Economic Impacts of Iowa’s Regional Food Systems Working Group.

For more information on the local foods work occurring in the northeast region, visit Northeast Iowa Buy Fresh, Buy Local and Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative websites.