WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Local cattle farmers have become expert planners, guesstimating when their cattle would be ready for market. They have to be because getting a slot at any slaughterhouse in the country seems to be taking over a year to secure.

This is just one of the aspects of modern farming that a group of Washington County, Tennessee beef producers hope to fix by building a modern, state of the art, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspected meat processing facility.

The first proposed location was going to be near Grandview Elementary School, which garnered opposition from many in the community, so the Appalachian Producers Cooperative (APC) board decided to pull its bid for that location and is considering other properties.

The board addressed the fact that there have been many misconceptions within the surrounding community about the proposed facility.

Addressing community concerns

Lexy Close is the Appalachian RC&D Council Program Director. She has played an integral part in the planning process.

“I think folks are kind of upset by the idea of a meat processing facility coming in because maybe they have Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’ 1920 Chicago meat processing plants in their mind,” she said.

The three main concerns she said the community raised were odors, sounds and traffic that would potentially be caused by the facility, apart from the fact that it was located next to a school.

She explained that there could be two potential sources for bad smells: animal manure and rancid animal waste.

“The holding pens where the animals will be kept, while they’re waiting, will be a concrete floor,” Close said. “It’ll have drainage areas so that manure will be cleaned daily. It’ll be pressure washed so that there’s not going to be any manure stored on site. So, that smell’s not going to be there.”

She said that animal waste allowed to go rancid will have an odor, but the group has taken steps to prevent that from happening.

“This is one of the first things we discussed at the group — how we were going to properly deal with the waste products,” Close said. “We’ve been in consultation with University of Tennessee experts on meat processing, and so the facility is going to have a refrigerated storage area for the waste that’s going to be kept in sealed containers.”

The board has also been in talks with a rendering company and also the local landfill to ensure all the waste products have somewhere to go.

The rendering company has said they can come two to three times per week, Close said.

“It’ll be in steel barrels that will be picked up multiple times a week, so there’s no opportunity for it to go rancid; there’s no opportunity for it to smell,” she added.

She said the planning process has been extensive.

“The group has visited other similar sites, facilities that were built very recently in the last few years; there were no smells to be had,” Close said. “It’s not gonna smell any worse than your average Food City or Ingles meat counter.”

The second big concern raised by the community was noise and the use of firearms on the property.

“We’re not going to be euthanizing animals with firearms,” she said. “We use something called a captive bolt system. It operates on compressed air; it’s very quiet; it’s instantaneous for the animals.”

The project hopes to bring an animal welfare group onboard as well to ensure the humane slaughter of animals on the premises.

“Animals get stressed out by loud noises, and stress hormones actually affect the quality of meat,” she said. “So, it’s very important, especially in modern facilities, to reduce stress on the animals as much as possible.”

Another major concern was traffic.

“People were saying there’s going to be tractor-trailers coming in day and night,” Close said, which she added would not be the case for the facility that would accommodate a maximum slaughter of 100 head a week when it reaches full capacity.

“They’re all going to be dropped off by appointment; they’re probably going to come in a farm truck in a cattle trailer five to 10 heads at a time,” she said.

The other vehicles she predicts that could add to the traffic flow would be employees — which would total roughly 21 — and customers who visit the retail section of the facility.

“There will hopefully be an on-site retail location where the community can come and pick up fresh meat that’s been processed through the facility,” Close said. “So, there might be a little retail traffic, but we don’t anticipate that it’s going to overburden any road system, wherever it gets located.”

‘Money in the farmers’ pocket

“We did some very conservative financial projections,” Close said. “We didn’t want to make it too rosy. So, we’re estimating that when it reaches full capacity at 100 head per week that it’s going to draw in about $4 million a year in revenue.”

The facility would be farmer-owned through the co-op.

“There’s not any one person that’s going to be getting all of the profit from this facility,” she added. “It’s going to be shared, potentially among dozens, if not hundreds of local farmers; they’re going to be getting that extra income off the facility.”

Mike Southerland is the president of the Appalachian Producers Co-op.

He explained that there are essentially three phases to raising cattle:

  1. Calving
  2. Raising
  3. Feeding

He said that most cattle raised in Northeast Tennessee are currently shipped to the Midwest or the North to be fed out and processed because it is too expensive to get an adult cow up to the pristine slaughter weight as feed prices have gone up over the last several years, but farmers are being paid less for their beef.

“The farmers are taking a $10 to $15 per 100 cut on their cattle because they have to ship them,” Southerland said. “That would increase profits to the farmers here in the local area. Plus, they would make a more economic product that is locally grown for the consumers here in East Tennessee.”

Close hopes the facility would cut out the middlemen.

She said local food has a pretty good economic multiplier in terms of the impacts on a local economy.

“This money is going to come from the local community; it’s going to stay in the local community,” Close said. “These dollars are going to be kept here. It’s not like you buy from a big international grocery store chain [and] that money goes elsewhere.”

She explained that since it will be owned by a cooperative, there are no middlemen between the farmers and the consumers.

“For every dollar that someone spends at the grocery store on food, the average amount that the farmer gets is only 14 cents,” she said. “So, farmers are going to be able to make a premium for their cattle, so they’re going to make more money, but also it’s going to allow the facility to sell very affordable beef because there are no middlemen.”

Currently, four of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies account for the majority of the beef market, charging farmers pennies on the dollar for their cattle.

“When we get in full capacity, we’re hoping to process 100 head a week, and that is a drop in the bucket to what they do,” Southerland explained. “But it will help take care of our local supply for local people.”

He said it would be a relief not to have to sell his cattle to someone outside his community at a loss anymore.

“I’m taking my cattle 100 miles one direction and having to book a year in advance just to get my animals processed,” he said. “So, that would bring that back to a local economy to provide jobs here. Plus, it makes it a whole lot easier on me, and there are lots of other farmers in the same category.

“Since the pandemic hit, there’s been a huge demand for locally grown meat, and so that that would help us supply that a lot easier and cheaper for our customers.”

Farm to table’

Joseph Redman is a cattle farmer who also owns The Kitchen at Grace Meadows. He hopes the facility will help him serve meat from his own farm in his restaurant.

“We have family recipes, and we want the meat right off the farm onto our table,” he said.

Right now, Redman has to plan at least a year in advance if he wants to secure a slot at an abattoir.

“When we started opening the restaurant and realized, you know, it’s 12 to 14 months to get anything killed, we just basically now buy from our food distributors, and so I think that this will be an asset for not only us but any local restaurant that they can say, ‘OK, your beef come from this area, this region,'” he said.

Redman explained that his restaurant sees a high demand for beef.

“We go through 2,000 pounds of hamburger a week,” he said.

Close explained that 50% of the land in Washington County is designated for agriculture.

“We have tourists coming into the area for those wide-open vistas,” she said. “So, by preserving by making farms more profitable, we preserve farmland, and we preserve those wide-open spaces for our community and for visitors to enjoy,” Close said.

Even if approved, though, the facility would not 100% meet the meat need for the whole of Northeast Tennessee.

“It’s only going to produce about 20,000 pounds a week in retail sales of meat, which is really a drop in the bucket for what’s consumed,” Close said. “But 50 years ago, we had all this community infrastructure. Everything was local, you were getting your meat, your dairy, your produce, your greens locally, and that infrastructure has eroded; it’s disappeared.”

She added that the farm-to-table trend Redman hopes to attain through the new facility would be taking the region back to its roots, as well as meeting the need established during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is kind of one step toward reinvesting and rebuilding this kind of local food system that really is going to give East Tennessee that character and that sense of community that really makes it a great place to live and a great place to visit,” Close said.

Southerland said the pandemic revolutionized how beef is consumed.

“The scare of the pandemic shortage of meat has caused people to want to know where it’s grown, locally, and to that they know they can get it, and so that is good for us; it’s increased our business but it’s limited as to how much we can do because we can’t get spaces to get them slaughtered,” Southerland said.

Close said the facility won’t have a big environmental impact.

“And I think once the building is in place, and once it’s operating, no one’s gonna think about it, except maybe, ‘I need to pick up some fresh steaks from my barbecue this weekend,'” she said.

How it works

Local farmers would bring local cows and calves that will have to meet certain criteria to a facility where they would be fed the same ratio to control the quality of meat to be processed in the facility once the cows are grown.

“When that’s money in the farmers’ pocket that they’re able to keep locally, finishing locally, farmers are gonna have to get their feed locally; there are extra vet costs, there’s insurance, infrastructure, all that stuff is going to be money spent locally, so this is really going to be a boon,” Close said.

According to Washington County zoning laws, the property on which the facility is to be built will have to be zoned A3 or M2.

“There’s not a lot of that land already available, so we’re having to find a suitable piece of property and rezone it,” Close said.

Once complete, the facility will have a retail area as well as a custom slaughter area by appointment only.

“The group has visited other similar sites, facilities that were built very recently in the last few years,” Close said.

In October 2021, the co-op board visited Anderson Meats and Processing in Hartsville, Tennessee. The team took an architect on the trip and documented what they liked and disliked by taking the photos below.

The group is also drawing inspiration from Marksbury Farm Market in Kentucky and Appalachian Abattoir in West Virginia.  All of these facilities were built within the last five years. The Appalachian Abattoir is under construction and should be opening soon.

Community support

The Washington County Commission was set to vote on the rezoning of the piece of property next to the school, but Close said they are no longer planning to use that property for their facility.

“We’re just kind of pulling back to reassess where we need to go, so right now, what we need from the commission, we will eventually have to go get a piece of property rezoned just because the M2 and A3 are pretty scarce in Washington County,” she said.

One county commissioner in favor of the facility is Kent Harris.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Harris said. “You know, my family’s been raising beef cattle in Washington County since the 1890s. And there’s definitely a need for one now more than probably ever.”

The catch: he wants the community to support it before he will.

“This is something that needs to be a positive for the community, not a negative,” he said.

“The people that called me that was complaining about it were all agreeing that we needed it; they just didn’t like where it was gonna be built,” Harris said. “So you know, Washington County is a large county. We have a lot of property, and I firmly believe we can find the right location and we want to go into this thing with a community behind.”

The County Commission voted to send the chairman of the commission as a whole along with two commissioners chairing committees to a facility in West Virginia to evaluate the local impact.

“I think that this board of producers that have been formed into this co-op, they definitely, I think, have the right mission at hand,” Harris said.

He said he plans to visit the facility in West Virginia himself to gauge the impact for farmers and the region.

“The farmers, they’re on the low end of the totem pole,” Harris said. “Hopefully, this will be something that will help them, and Washington County has been a very strong farm and community for years, and I hope we can continue.”

He said his daughter and son-in-law farm for a living, as well as his grandfather.

“So, I hope that this will help everyone; that’s what I want to see happen, but I also want to see it done in a way that we have the community behind it,” Harris said.

He explained that he lived in an area of Washington County impacted by a noisy Bitcoin mine, and after the commission voted to put an end to it, he said it became important to him that large operations be vetted before they are approved.

“This is the way you do things,” Harris said. “I think you put it out [and] people voice their opinions, [and] we look back again and [see] what can we do to make it work to get the community by and make sure if people are happy and it succeeds. I think this is working the way government should work.”

The co-op board could announce a new location for the proposed facility within the next week.