SOLDIERS GROVE — The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative and the Great River Graziers host numerous pasture walks each year, inviting area farmers and landowners to learn more about the economic and environmental incentives for managed grazing in southwest Wisconsin. But on Oct. 27, the organizations co-hosted a not-so-traditional pasture walk, allowing a sneak peek inside a new meat processing facility setting up shop in an old Swiss Valley milk plant.

“Meat processing is absolutely critical to us; it’s one of our No. 1 concerns with the grazing group,” said Cynthia Olmstead, project director for the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative. “We couldn’t have been more thrilled when this site was chosen, and I cannot stress enough how important it is for our community, as we’ve lost many of our meat lockers.”

Rich Sitarski, an elk farmer outside of Gays Mills, and Duane Johannes, a mobile butcher from Hillsboro, have joined forces to open Solar Meats in Soldiers Grove. The owners plan to process large animals, with a focus on the humane treatment of the animals, and to seek organic certification — a need they saw in the area due in part to a concentration of farmers in the Organic Valley Co-op.

Sitarski and Johannes first met about two years ago; the two started talking, with Sitarski seeing Johannes had the ambition, the expertise and the passion to move forward with something bigger. Sitarski could offer management and a building to Johannes, and Johannes could use his expertise to offer services to an area in need.

They looked at several sites in the region and even had an architect draw up plans for a brand-new building on a vacant lot. But when they visited the old Swiss Valley plant in Soldiers Grove, Sitarski said Johannes looked at the building and said, “Rich, this is the place.”

The plant was built in the early 1980s and originally served as a cheese processing plant. Ten years after opening, the plant transitioned from cheese processing to a milk transfer station. While the building had been vacant for some time, the owners saw promise, as it has good bones, a concrete structure, city water and sewer and is in a good location along Highway 61.

Contractors have been busy working on the building, with completion of the meat processing facility planned in three phases. The first phase includes getting Johannes out of his mobile processing trailer and into the Solar Meats building; both owners are confident this can be done by the end of the year.

Phase two includes completing a sausage-making facility and smokehouse on the premises, with the owners setting a tentative timeline of having that part of the business open by spring. By the end of 2019, Sitarski and Johannes aim to have the on-site kill floor and chill coolers installed and to be fully inspected and certified organic.

“We know local farmers need a processing plant, but we also know people in the area are opposed to a large processing plant,” Sitarski said. “We’re hoping to be in the middle.”

“We do have a demand out there for this process — there’s plenty of animals out there,” Johannes added. “I think there will be an abundance (of business). I think this will become way more than we expected.”

Also in the plans for the facility is a retail store, managed by Viola pastured pork farmers Mike and Sue Mueller. Mike vaguely knew Sitarski and Johannes before Solar Meats — they were connected to each other through the need for a place to process pork from the Mueller’s farm.

“The common goal we needed was processing, and out of that, teamwork was formed,” Mike said.

Sue also became interested in opening a retail store inside Solar Meats, with goals to support the business, support local residents and invite local people to sell produce and other products inside the store. She has also toyed with the idea of installing a commercial kitchen on-site to encourage food products made from local ingredients and to hold a farm market once a week outside the store.

“I really want to encourage local people to sell their products here,” she said. “I want the local economy to grow and we want people to grow with it.”

To Vance Haugen, retired Crawford County UW-Extension agent, Soldiers Grove is a great place for the meat processing facility.

“We have agriculture, tourism and we are a bedroom community,” he said. “I’d say it’s one of the strongest three-legged stools we’ve got. And the synergy is here.

“It’s exciting to see people working together and coming together for a common purpose to get something done. That is the success.”