County plans to help meat producers

Cabarrus County is moving forward with plans to build a public slaughterhouse for local meat producers.

The slaughterhouse, or "harvesting floor," has been proposed by local officials in response to suggestions from meat producers who say having a slaughterhouse closer to home would save them time and money.

And that's an important consideration in Cabarrus County, where the top agricultural product is beef cattle, said Debbie Bost, the county's extension director.

In 2007, Cabarrus County beef cattle farms sold 7,237 cattle for $4.47 million, said Bost.

The county hosted a meeting with owners of land with active agriculture in 2007. About 250 people attended, sharing their concerns and proposing ideas to help local agriculture. One idea was bringing a slaughter facility to the county to help reduce transportation costs for local meat producers.

A survey of 2,000 meat producers in 10 surrounding counties found that 80 percent of producers would like to see a slaughter facility in area, said Bost.

Currently, meat producers transport their animals to slaughter facilities - some of the closest facilities are as far away as Gibsonville or North Wilkesboro - and later travel back to those facilities to pick up the meat and then take the meat to a processing facility that will process the bulk meat into products such as steaks or hamburgers.

The county received a $675,000 grant in 2008 from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund to help build a local slaughter facility.

Since then, the county has been working to get necessary permits and design plans.

Bost said the county hopes to soon accept bids for construction. The facility will cost about $1 million to build, she said.

The county will pursue additional grants, said Bost, and a construction timeline has not yet been set.

The county plans to build the slaughterhouse on the property of Cruse Meat Processing on Rimer Road in Concord.

Details have yet to be finalized, said Bost, but the county will own the slaughterhouse for at least 15 years, and Cruse Meat Processing will be contracted to operate the facility, according to preliminary plans. After 15 years, the facility will become the property of Cruse Meat Processing, which processes beef and pork.

Eddie Cruse, a manager at Cruse Meat Processing, said he can remember when local meat producers didn't have to go far to find a slaughterhouse.

"Just about every little town had two or three," said Cruse, whose grandfather started the business in the 1950s.

But during the last 15 years, facilities got older and inspection regulations got stricter, causing many facilities to shut down, said Cruse. Some facilities still slaughter animals, but only for not-for-sale meat, meaning that it is not considered government-inspected, and farmers must use the meat for their own consumption.

Cruse Meat Processing doesn't currently slaughter animals at its facility. Instead, it processes the meat slaughtered elsewhere.

Initially, the proposed slaughter facility will not produce "value-added" products, such as hot dogs, bratwurst or bacon.

"But eventually, the hope is that they'll be able to add the value-added services farmers want," said Aaron Newton, Cabarrus County's local food system project coordinator who leads the county's Food Policy Council. The council met for the first time in June.

At farmer's markets across Cabarrus County, a handful of farmers have begun selling local meat.

It's part of a growing local food movement that has flourished across the area, said Newton.

"People want to know where their food comes from," he said. "And not just understand where it's raised but also where and how it was processed."

One local farmer told Newton that having a slaughter facility nearby could knock $1 off the cost of a pound of ground beef.

The facility would be about 3 miles away from Chad VonCannon's farm on Mount Olive Road in Concord, just north of Mount Pleasant, where he raises and sells beef, pork, chickens, turkeys and eggs.

VonCannon transports his animals to Gibsonville, more than 100 miles northeast of Concord, to be slaughtered.

He said he's looking forward to traveling closer to home.

"That will be a huge time- and money-saver," said VonCannon, who is also member of the county's Food Policy Council.

He said it would lower prices for his customers and allow meat producers to be more involved in the process.

"It will allow us further ensure the integrity of our products," he said.