You can hear them before you see them, four large hogs flopped out on the wet earth, snoozing and snorting in the sunlight. Unlike the majority of hogs raised for meat in America, these fat and happy animals will spend their entire lives in the pastures of Hickory Nut Gap Farm until they are ready to become bacon, pork chops or barbecue.
Hickory Nut Gap in Fairview currently has 100 hogs and 90 cattle grazing in its own pastures and the fields of other farms their meet its standards for cultivating pasture-raised, free-range livestock. All of these animals will be entirely raised by the farm, whereas livestock on the majority of smaller local farmsteads are eventually sold to larger operations, provided grain feed, then led to a slaughter factory built to process upward of 30,000 head a day.
By contrast, the Hickory Nut Gap animals will be brought to small, family-owned processing facilities like Mays Meats in Taylorsville, a plant that adopted fully certified-organic standards in 2011. These USDA-approved sites also provide farmers with butchering and packaging services.
Every week, Hickory Nut Gap workers load up hogs to carry to slaughter. Mays Meats is an hour and 45 minutes away, and while it is one of the closest meat-processing facilities, “We were maxing May’s out at 15 head a week,” says Hickory Nut Gap owner Jamie Ager. The farm also employs the services of Brown’s Packing in Gaffney, S.C., as well as Wells Jenkins & Wells in Forest City, both over an hour away, and both of which can only process upward of 10-12 head of livestock at a time. Many of these abattoirs are forced to put farmers on wait lists.
“All the stuff you have to do to haul animals around is really expensive, so you really want to be able to fill a trailer up,” says Ager, who increasingly finds himself hauling that trailer more than five hours across the state to the Villari Foods’ plant in Warsaw. Villari will take around 60 hogs at a time, saving the farm a significant amount of money — savings that are reflected in the price of that pork at the store. Which raises the question: If a hog has to be transported five hours out of town to be processed, just how local is your bacon? “The meat business needs to be regionalized,” says Ager. “There’s a lot of efficiency gained with at least some scale.”
Another point to consider: These smaller processing facilities undergo inspections by Animal Welfare Approved and Global Animal Partnership — the same inspection agency used by Whole Foods — to ensure humane treatment of the livestock. The more accessible and affordable locally and ethically raised meat becomes, the more likely the population at large will be to purchase it.
Ager isn’t the only one to recognize the need for regional small-scale processing in Western North Carolina. In 2014, the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission and the WNC AgriVentures Cultivating Jobs and Innovation Project ordered a feasibility study on the idea of a WNC slaughterhouse. Local agriculture guru Smithson Mills, now the director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, authored that report.
“There’s been a rising demand for local meats, and what we found from the study is that there were indeed dozens of farmers looking for facilities that were closer,” Mills says. “A lot of these farmers are taking their animals to slaughterhouses that are far off the mountain.”
In his study, Mills cites a 2012 report by Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, showing 4,984 cattle, 2,291 hogs, 1,085 sheep and 169 goats cultivated for meat each year in WNC. His research turned up over 3,000 animals in Buncombe County alone in need of a proper processing facility. “Most Western North Carolina meat producers are very small-scale,” he writes in his report. “Among the 55 identified producers, the median production volume (where half produce more and half produce less) by head is 25 animals per year, with an average production volume of about 85 head per year.
“I think the study shows that there is a pathway to make it work, but by no means will it be easy,” says Mills, noting that the proposed small-scale facility in his study would cost over $3 million.
“With all the growth in the local economy, it may be feasible,” says Foothills Local Meats owner and former coordinator of NC Choices Casey McKissick, who adds, in a decidedly less optimistic tone, “But would I put my money into one personally right now? Probably not.”
“The thing about slaughter facilities is, regulatory-wise, it is hard to get them started just because of the oversight,” he says. “And then there’s the fact that nobody wants one in their backyard, so you have to be really careful about where you locate these things.” Worries about sewage and wastewater keep them out of rural areas that rely on septic systems for fear of contaminating well water, and a variety of issues, such as concerns over sanitation, noise and wastewater, keep them out of urban environments. Buncombe has even gone so far as to issue a moratorium on slaughterhouses in the county.
Ager observes, “Our mission is to create enough scale locally to at least create some efficiency, but it’s still a long way to go. The challenge with these smaller plants … If you’re killing 10,000 head a day at those big plants, your cost per head is basically nothing, because they can buy a machine that cleans the tripe on beef that a small plant that only kills 10 head a day just can’t buy. So when we pay $300-$500 a head on beef and $150-to-$200-something per pig, there’s still a plant out there that is going through 30,000 in a day. Your processing cost is really the reason everything costs so much more. But the whole idea of a place that can handle 30,000 head a day has some social ramifications. … I can’t imagine that would be a top-notch working environment.”
“Five or six years ago, there was a lot of grant money available for infrastructure development in local foods and especially in meat,” says McKissick. “But a lot of that loose grant money, particularly in infrastructure, went away. So the chances of someone helping us fund a slaughterhouse is pretty slim. … It’s going to have to be private capital.”
“If somebody wanted to take a bet and invest in the future of our local meat industry, there is a reasonably good chance that it would work,” says Mills, whose 95-page 2014 study makes a compelling case. “But we are talking about millions of dollars and years of work before we even know if it will be successful.”
Until then, Western North Carolina livestock farmers are left holding their hats, waiting in the queues of the busy abattoirs hours away, while omnivores hoping for more affordable, local and ethical options for meat are paying the ever-increasing price it costs to buy food from their neighbors.