Western North Carolina farmers have repeatedly called for a new slaughterhouse and red meat processing plant that meets current needs. But the high cost of such facilities and uncertainty concerning its economic feasibility have hindered efforts to establish one here. Some businesses’ and residents’ resistance to having a slaughterhouse for a neighbor further complicates the picture.
“The demand for local meats, local food in general, has really increased over the past 10 years,” says Sarah Blacklin, director of NC Choices, an initiative that coordinates with various stakeholders to promote small-scale meat production. “We have a lot of farmers and processors that are trying to meet that demand.”
A report prepared for the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission and WNC AgriVentures found that although Buncombe County businesses are responsible for most of the red meat raised for production and local sales in the region, the plant should be sited in McDowell County, due to the lower cost of land and greater acceptance of such facilities. Under Buncombe County zoning rules, slaughterhouses are allowed as a conditional use only in areas not served by the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Many communities and local governments don’t want a slaughterhouse “in their backyard,” says consultant Smithson Mills, who prepared the report. Buncombe County’s restrictions were enacted to protect a growing tourism industry, the report notes.
Meanwhile, efforts to develop such a facility are continuing. “A plan has been developed, a lot of information has been gathered, and we’re actively looking for people who’d be interested in participating,” says Mills.
Robin Reeves of Reeves Home Place Farm in Leicester, says she now drives an hour and a half to Greeneville, Tenn., for red meat processing and one hour to Marion for poultry processing.
“When you can save two hours, that’s two hours you can be on your farm doing stuff,” notes Reeves, who raises pigs for the WhiskeyPigs brand.
Will it pay?
“The challenge for some farmers,” says Blacklin, “is how much they have to drive to get to different processing facilities. Then again, the processors have the challenge of making sure they have their business supported.”
For Casey McKissick, co-founder of Foothills Local Meats in Black Mountain, a local processing facility could have a big impact on the company’s wholesale, retail and deli operations.
“A state-of-the-art, well-managed plant neighboring Asheville will bring more supply to the area, meaning buyers will have more options of vendors to choose from,” says McKissick, who served as an adviser and helped developed portions of the report. “A new plant would likely spur new development in the distribution link of the supply chain, which may mean that logistics could become easier and/or less expensive.”
As for feasibility, he continues, “The Mills study has been the most comprehensive yet, and it suggests that demand may be sufficient in this area to support a new plant.”
The Southeast’s existing plants don’t offer the variety of cuts, smoked meats and sausages needed to meet customer demand. “A lot of people want those different kinds of cuts — the whole pig with the head still on, that type of stuff,” notes Reeves, saying she’d welcome such a facility in Haywood or Madison County. “We want to expand that part of the meat market.”
Blacklin agrees. “Although we have a lot of processing facilities in North Carolina, there’s only a couple handfuls that really provide the services that farmers want when it comes to selling meat direct,” she explains, such as retail-ready, vacuum-sealed packaging, USDA or state-inspected labeling, and the ability to produce sausages or fully smoked meats.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture inspects plants in Burke, Rutherford and Swain counties, and there are eight USDA-inspected plants within a few hours’ drive of WNC, including some in Georgia and Tennessee. But only one North Carolina facility can provide fully smoked products, says Blacklin, and it’s in the eastern part of the state.
“That’s a big distance for them,” she notes. “If you’re getting into higher-end, value-added items, that’s a long way to send fresh meat.”
Making it happen
Published last October, the report contains a draft business plan that includes those kinds of services. The actual product offerings, however, will depend on how much money is available from private investors, says Mills. The projected startup cost for a full-service facility is more than $2 million. Once a financing package is finalized and signed, he says, construction should take about a year.
“I have design specs, I have cost estimates, I have equipment lists with cost estimates. I have a site where it could be built, I have the support of the town where it’s targeted to be built, and I think there’s an opportunity to execute this program.”