Meat processor will support local ranchers

The Cruse Meats Harvest Facility being built in Concord will be the first large-scale, state-regulated meat processing plant in Cabarrus County.

It is expected to be fully operational by summer, and county extension agents anticipate hundreds of cattlemen throughout a 10-county area will take advantage of the local processor. The closest similar operations are 75 miles away or more in Wilkesboro and Greensboro.

The facility is being built adjacent to the Cruse Meats family business on Rimer Road, east of downtown Concord. The 4,546-square-foot addition was designed to slaughter about 25 animals - mainly cattle and pork - per day. It also will include 765 square feet of holding pens.

County extension director Debbie Bost said the new facility will allow residents greater access to locally produced meat while providing a boost to the economy.

"Consumers (will) get the opportunity to meet and know and trust the producers," said Bost. "It also gives producers additional opportunity to sell and direct market products that will add money to their enterprise, therefore allowing them to purchase additional inputs locally, and that keeps the money circling through the local economy."

In June, commissioners award the construction bid to J.E. Goodrum Company Inc. for $847,000. Cabarrus County commissioners finalized construction agreements on Aug. 15. The project is part of the commissioners' Sustainable Community Initiative, as it gives farmers a local option for slaughtering and processing their livestock for sale in local markets.

To help pay for the project, the county is using a $622,000 grant from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Remaining costs will be covered by previously appropriated county funds and about $300,000 from the Cruse family. A county loan of $325,000 will fund the development of the wastewater management system needed for the site and user fees will pay back that loan.

"We've been working on this project since 2007 and we really got things moving in 2008 after we got the grant," said Bost. "We sent out a survey to all of the cattlemen in a 10-county area and received indication from more than 200 farmers that they were interested in using Cruse Meats because it was closer than any other harvesting facility."

The building is about 75 percent complete, but Cruse Meats still has to buy and install the equipment needed to process the animals. The project also is expected to create a few jobs.

The county is leasing the site to Cruse Meats, which is taking on all costs associated with using the site. Under the management agreement, Cruse Meats will cover operating costs and the purchase and maintenance of equipment.

Eventually, Cruse Meats will own the facility, but not for about 20 years, depending on the fees generated by water use and the wastewater facility. The county will have a lien on the property and can foreclose on the Cruse's land and the facility.

The push for the project started in 2007, when more than 200 residents, along with county commissioners and other administrators, met to discuss ways to preserve the agricultural integrity of the county.

"Access to locally produced meats was a major category in the conversation, since beef cattle are the number one commodity grown in Cabarrus County," said Bost.

Bost, who raises cattle on her Mount Pleasant farm, expects to harvest about 20 cows per year at the new facility. Cabarrus County has about 9,000 head of beef cattle, said Bost, and this facility also will help expand the local food movement.

"This is going to be great," she said. "I don't think it will be very long until we reach capacity (25 animals per day). When it's available right here, (farmers) are going to harvest locally and they're going to direct market. People call my office every day asking where they can buy a half or quarter of beef. We get those calls every day and it's only going to increase."

Carl Pless, a farmer and an agricultural agent for the county, said a benefit of the new facility is that it will process locally produced food from farmers that residents can get to know personally.

"The use of traceability equipment allows producers and consumers 100 percent assurance that the animals provided to the harvest facility are the same ones picked up after its processed, guaranteeing that you are getting the product you have been promised by the producer."

Eddie Cruse helps run the family business, which was started in 1953 and moved to its current location in 1973. He said the new facility will mainly process beef and pork but goat and sheep also could be processed there.

"The whole design of this is to make it more convenient for the farmers to be able to sell their product, so they can make more money, which will help them keep their property," said Cruse. "And people will be able to buy local meat from their neighbor instead of getting stuff that's shipped in."

Farmers who wish to use the service must have a meat handler's license from the state.

After the meat is processed, Cruse will package, weigh and label it. The farmer can then sell it to others directly.

The facility was built on the condition that Cruse Meats would practice humane handling procedures. Beth Yongue of the N.C. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Inspection Division reviewed the site plans and made changes and recommendations to ensure humane handling, said Bost.

"It's done in the safest, best way possible to ensure the animal doesn't suffer," said Bost.

Cruse agreed, adding, "We're making it as humane as possible."