Organizers of this weekend's Carolina Meat Conference say it is the first of its kind in the nation, and Cabarrus Arena & Events Center in Concord will be the host site for the planned annual event.
The conference, March 25-27, will connect small-scale producers, processors and consumers of livestock from throughout the state. Independent farmers, butchers, chefs and buyers plan to network during a weekend of workshops, hands-on training and panel discussions.
The conference is unique in that it is geared toward small-scale farmers who manage anywhere from 20-250 animals. Event registration is closed, but more than 250 people signed up from around the state.
Representatives of the conference host, N.C. Choices, say the event is part of a statewide initiative to strengthen the region's growing local meat industry.
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Jennifer Curtis is director of N.C. Choices, an initiative sponsored by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a collaboration between N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture. N.C. Choices' mission is to promote development of the livestock sector with a focus on animals raised on pastures, without antibiotics.
"What we've realized is we need a stronger connection between farmer, processor and buyer," said Curtis. "We're bringing everybody together in the supply chain. All the big players in North Carolina that are interested in producing, processing and marketing local meat are coming together to better understand each other and to enhance the overall industry.
"A lot of producers who are serious about meat production have markets outside the state, but what they're starting to realize is everyone around them wants their meat because it's local, they can trust the farmer and they know where they're getting it from."
The N.C. Choices initiative began in 2003. By 2007, the number of N.C. farmers selling their products directly to consumers more than tripled, said Curtis, and the number continues to grow quickly.
Cabarrus County Commissioners in April 2010 approved the formation of the Cabarrus County Food Policy Council. The council has more than 20 members - including community leaders like Ed Hosack of Cooperative Christian Ministry as well as farmers, chefs, doctors, educators and business owners - engaged in activities to help understand and develop a local food economy.
"The general vision and level of activity going on in (Cabarrus) around building a local food economy is what's made us think about (hosting the event) there," said Curtis. "Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County have ongoing efforts with local food policy councils, where they're bringing the community together to talk about the situation and how we can move forward creatively, so there are good conversations going on locally."
Aaron Newton, 36, the local food system program coordinator for the county, calls the food policy council the go-to group for food issues that affect the community.
Working with the food policy council, Newton and the Cabarrus County Cooperative Extension, CEFS is conducting a community food assessment of what type of food is produced and consumed throughout the county and how to integrate them.
The assessment will be presented to the commissioners in June and will document the number and size of area farms, as well as what county residents eat and where it comes from. The assessment will illustrate key strengths and weaknesses in the county's food system, identify opportunities for growth and create a report to encourage development of strategic programs, such as the local food action plan.
"The local food action plan will outline what it looks like to eat in Cabarrus County in 20 years," said Newton
Newton, a Concord native who was becoming a full-time farmer before taking on his new role with the county, wrote a book about food and farming in the U.S called "A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil." He's also developing a food leadership course that will educate people about opportunities surrounding the revitalization of a local food economy. He hopes to offer the course this fall through community education and local community colleges.
Commissioners say the production and consumption of local food is a critical element in creating a sustainable community. Other benefits could help reduce diet-related conditions and therefore health-care costs for county residents; preserve rural and agricultural heritage; help air quality (Cabarrus and the Charlotte region as a whole do not meet EPA standards); enhance food safety and security; and possibly help close the gap of jobs lost when manufacturing powerhouses like Pillowtex and Philip Morris closed.
But it has to be a communal effort, said Newton.
"Cabarrus County really has the opportunity to be a leader in the Charlotte region, and the nation, as we transition to a more local and more sustainable food system," he said.