Cabarrus meat-processing plant caters to farmers throughout 10-county area

Max Cruse helped butcher his first cow when he was 12, and he’s been involved in the trade ever since.

Cruse is an instrumental figure behind Cabarrus County’s first large-scale, state-regulated meat-processing plant, which dozens of cattlemen across 10 counties use.

Now 77, the owner of Cruse Meats mostly just answers the phone and takes orders while his thriving meat plant continues to attract farmers from a large part of the state. Similar operations are 75 or more miles away, in Wilkesboro and Greensboro.

Cruse said the project has exceeded his expectations.

“I just wish it would have happened 25 or 30 years ago, when I was younger,” he said.

Cruse estimated that about 75 regular customers bring in about 25 to 35 cattle and 20 to 25 hogs per week.

The slaughterhouse was built next to the family’s butcher business, which opened in 1973 on Rimer Road, east of downtown Concord. In the 1990s, they added retail sales of the meat they cut.

The 4,546-square-foot plant opened July 5, 2012, designed to slaughter about 25 animals per day – mainly cattle and pork. It also has 765 square feet of holding pens.

Cattle are Cabarrus County’s largest farm commodity, with close to 7,000 head raised in 2011, according to agents at the Cabarrus County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension.

The total project cost roughly $1.2 million, according to the now-defunct Cabarrus Food Policy Council. Cabarrus County used a $622,000 grant from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund to help pay for construction.

County money appropriated previously, augmented by funds from the Cruse family, covered the remaining costs.

A separate county loan of $325,000 funded the development of the wastewater management system needed for the site. User fees will pay off that loan.

In summer, the business is generally slower, Cruse said; it’s beginning to pick up now. He said he had at least a handful of new clients just last week.

“I had a farmer call the other day from Fayetteville, and I told him, ‘You’re a mighty long way from here.’ And he said, ‘Well, there isn’t any place between here and you,’ ” Cruse said. “They drive a long distance to get it done because there’s so many rules and regulations.”

Aaron Newton, a Concord native who co-wrote “A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil,” works for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association as coordinator for the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm Park.

The addition of the slaughterhouse to Cruse Meats’ existing business was in response to the 2011 Food System Assessment, Newton said, overseen by the Food Policy Council and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

“It addressed a glaring need in our agricultural community: lots of people raising cows and pigs, and nowhere close by to have them turned into meat,” Newton said.

“We are seeing local families who never would have raised a cow or a pig for personal consumption doing so. We are seeing new ‘growers’ willing to get into the business because slaughter and processing is easier.”

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who attended the facility’s grand opening, said the Cruse Meats facility is one of only a few similar plants that have opened in North Carolina in the past few years.

“It is the only slaughtering facility in the general area willing to process animals for the public,” said Troxler.

“Seventy percent of (their) business is serving meat handlers in the surrounding area, and I know, depending on the time of year, they are operating at full capacity,” he said.

During the past decade, there has been tremendous growth in the number of farmers raising and selling their own meat, said Troxler.

“About 10 years ago, we may have had a dozen meat handlers in the state; today we have 772,” he said. “Consumers are looking for fresh and local, and these farmers provide for this need. Facilities like (the Cruses’) support this growing market.”

Chad VonCannon owns Creekside Farms, a small family operation just north of Mount Pleasant. Creekside raises and sells all-natural, pasture-raised beef, pork, chicken, turkeys and brown eggs, without added hormones, steroids or antibiotics.

Because of Cruse’s slaughterhouse, VonCannon has been able to process his meat locally, which frees him to spend more time on the farm raising animals.

“Before Cruse’s was an option for us, we were spending an extra five to 10 hours a week on the road,” VonCannon said. “This not only cost us time, but it also cost us money.

“Another major benefit is the fact that it has kept a substantial amount of money here in Cabarrus County that had been going to process facilities that are much further away.”