The local production and sale of meat is an economic opportunity for West Virginia farmers & food businesses. In 2013, the niche meat industry in North Carolina generated 19.6 million dollars in sales – and there’s no reason to think West Virginia can’t be a player in the future. The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition is working to see that future become reality.
So how do we get there? To start finding answers, NCIF, VC2, and the WVFFC Meat Working Group held a day long workshop:“Meat Your Profit Potential: A first hand look at new opportunities for the meat sector”
Presenter: Jennifer “Tootie” Jones, Chair, Meat Working Group
This event started as a conversation about how to address gaps that exist between meat producers & processors and people that are buying – or could be buying – their products. The goal for the future is to have a “straight line” from producer to consumer.
Presenter, Joe Cloud, T&E Meats, Harrisonburg, VA
Joe Cloud is the owner of a meat processing facility and partners with Joel Salatin to process his niche meat products. Joe says that to “To be a successful meat processor, you have to have relationships with 2-3 larger scaled producers.”
Cloud kept the T&E Meats brand after he acquired the company to maintain familiarity. Prior to his ownership, T&E was mainly retail store and wholesale market which mostly slaughtered hogs and made sausage. Cloud lost money the first two years, eventually deciding to stop operating trucks and focus on walk-in wholesale sales. In 2011, they closed the store, stopped wholesale, and focused on processing only and finally became profitable.
Now they are a USDA-inspected Co-Packer. In 2014 they had over $1 million in revenue, processed over $1 million pounds of meat, and butchered 3,790 livestock. With over 250 customers, the new limit to their growth is their facilities limit.
Sales of products at Farmers Markets have grown across the United States, but local meat has lagged behind the demand. Since 2010, niche meat markets have grown 10%. There is also steady growth in Farm to Table and Farm to School. The 2014 Farm Bill also contains numerous programs to support beginning farmers and ranchers. With all of this growth on the table, unreliable processing facilities are a bottleneck – but that is changing.
In Virginia, there has been a steady rise in processing facilities since 2003 that provide jobs and build the expertise of the industry. The value chain for sustainable meat has grown in Virginia through better logistics, direct marketing, interet sales, further processing, and small butcher shops.
T&E’s has grown in a variety of ways – from 4 to over 60 private labels, over 500,000 lbs of custom processing, not to mention payroll increases and a growing work force. Cloud says that by focusing on customer service and product quality as well as continual investments in facility equipment and workforce, T&E has found success.
T&E takes measures to understand its customers in a number of ways, including being transparent by inviting customers into the facility to see the process, training customers on how the facility works the value of their products, providing cutting instructions, pick-up and payment options, and transparency around pricing (every expense is based on meat processed by the pound).
With solid policies and procedures, T&E is sure of the quality of its product. These can include following a TEID# (explains when the animal came in and when it was slaughtered), cut sheets (sheet that must be signed by the butcher and the packer), and following logistics closely to know what each “load-out” shipment must be. It is signed by the facility and the customer. With constant trainings to ensure that employees know what is going on, communication is open and information flows from T&E to its customers and vice versa.
Cloud says that while good equipment is expensive, it does increase product quality as well as improve safety. T&E is always searching for potential upgrades and maintain a wish list, prioritized at annual strategic planning sessions. Decisions about equpiment are based on production savings.
T&E also focuses on investing in their employees: finding them, training them, and keeping them. It is important to motivate them, and incentivize them. It is critical to hire employees to train. Training is done by current employees. At T&E, prior experience is not necessary as long as they have a good attitude, work ethic, and potential. It is important to have ongoing training, and keep good records of that training. Training is risk management. Good employment training minimizes financial and regulatory risk.
Staff retention is key because replacing employees is expensive, and better staff retention means better quality control. By utilizing procedures such as a Performance Improvement Plan, maintaining an up-to-date employee handbook with duties and expectations, you can mitigate turnover and reduce unemployment costs. Retention is also reinforced by an incentivize program that includes bonuses tied to each pay cycle and production targets, as well as a demerit program that allow another form of quality control for the ownership.
Presenter: Joshua Moyers, Alleghany Meats, Monterey, Virginia
Alleghany Meats is a cooperatively owned facility that was opened in 2011. While it began by just processing beef, pork, and lamb, it has expanded to include goats and bison – a huge niche market with an average price for ground bison of over $12.99/lb.
Alleghany Meats has seen growth as well. They had 13 USDA customers their first year and now have over 65. Several customers come from West Virginia because of the proximity and the lack of facilities in the state. They recently added a USDA smoke processing unit, which has allowed them to get even more business from other states. They continue to learn and grow and focus on efficiency
Presenter: Shelly Keeney, The Wild Ramp, Huntington, West Virginia
The Wild Ramp is an indoor, year round, consignment model farmers market that functions as a non-profit. Farmers bring their product, and the Wild Ramp sells it, and takes a 90/10 cut from the sale. They have over 140 producers. In regards to meats, they started in 2012 with 3 meat producers. Have seen a huge increase in meat sales since then. Meat sales are neck and neck with produce sales. They were running out of meat, and encouraged current producers to increase production, and took on more producers. Demand for grass-finished beef has also increased, as well as selected chicken cuts, and pork products, especially bacon. Fish of any kind is in high demand, as well as lamb and goat.
Shelly works to know what her customers wants, and relays that demand to the producers. Now in 2015, she calls the producers and tells them what customers want based on her recorded sales. She believes it’s important to listen to the needs of all stakeholders involved to work together to figure out what people want. They sell all frozen meat, and it has not seemed to be an issue, as well as the price of the meat. Their customers want clean and sealed packaging, smaller portions, value added products, and specialty meats. Beef is the number one meat seller, with chicken and pork closely behind. In 2014, Chicken sales went from $4,000 to $18,000 in 2015.
The next step is to get restaurants to sign on, which they are having a hard time doing. They are considering starting their own restaurant. Shelley sees the Wild Ramp taking off more than it already is.
“It is a win win for everyone, and it has pulled the community together.”
I have a processing facility, and am having an issue with finding dedicated employees. I’m going to raise my pay scale to attract someone who is more committed. I want support and some sort of training to train employees to come on board and stick with me. Who do I go to to get support?
Workforce program would help to find training dollars to take that burden off through workforce investment act. Also has train the trainer dollars.
Check with high school programs in West Virginia that have meat processing programs.
What is inhibiting producers from selling at markets?
The hassles of the licensing requirements needed. Producers don’t know about it, or understand it.
People need to see the economic development that can be found in farming to make farmers do what is necessary to sell their product for profit.
What do you feel is the “bottleneck in your business? What holds you back from increasing your production?
Employees. It is hard to find reliable, experienced employees for the wages you can offer. Sometimes do not have enough volume to keep employees employed 40 hrs a week.
Facilities are dilapidated, and it is expensive to get facilities up to date, and maintain equipment.
Need to educate small producers as to what returns they can get from their animals.
Most don’t understand their breeds, and the yields they will produce.
Could your restaurant menu or market expand in meat sales if more Market Trend cuts were available to you?
Yes, it would be a draw to increase sales among people that are looking for that particular style from other areas.
It would also help customers to be more adventurous in their eating choices if they are educated on the meat cut, and have a chance to see how it is cooked, and try it.
The Meat Working Group has received funding by CAN to present a series of 4 training over the coming year. The topics of the trainings will be based on participants feedback. So far, there has been interest in workforce development (how to find the right staff – seeking the right candidate, hiring and then training your own workforce) and equipment choices (how to plan for future expansion, when is the right time to replace/upgrade, where to find the right equipment). Other potential topics include a field trip to Alleghany Meats for a look at their ‘smoking room’ for value added products, and a workshop on Rabbit & Chicken processing. There is much more to explore.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have suggestions or questions for the working group.
Who attended this event?23 Total Attendees6 Processors4 Restaurant / Retail Operations4 Working Group Members1 Educator from WVU3 State Agencies -2 WVDA, WVSBDC5 Non Profit Service Providers
- Workforce Development
- Equipment Choices
- Field trip to Alleghany Meats to see the ‘smoking room’ for value added products.
- Workshop on rabbit & chicken processing.
Contact us at email@example.com if you have suggestions or questions for the working group.