More than five years after it first opened, the Foothills Pilot Plant in McDowell County is no longer in operation. And this leaves many regional farmers in need of another place to take their poultry, rabbits and other small animals so they can be turned into packaged, USDA-approved meat.
Located at 135 Ag Services Drive off of N.C. 226 South, the Foothills Pilot Plant opened in January 2012. It was the first community-administered, non-profit meat processing plant in the entire nation also inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Since its opening, the Foothills Pilot Plant operated as the only facility of this type serving independent and small poultry and meat growers in the Southern Appalachians. This unique and innovative plant then began to see more business with growers from as far away as Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia than from the surrounding area.
The plant processed chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits and geese for small growers throughout the entire Southeast. It provided a way for these small growers to get their meats on the grocery store shelves and into restaurants. It also employed 15 people.
But the Foothills Pilot Plant stopped operating two weeks ago. Plant Manager Amanda Carter said to The McDowell News she had to close it down because of the lack of capital to keep it running.
“We ran out of dollars,” she said.
The plant was first a collaboration of state, federal and local governments, small-scale meat producers and grant-making agencies. It started out as a project by McDowell County and the McDowell Economic Development Association (MEDA). It was operated under joint authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to provide “regional growers with the opportunity to market their meat products to a broader consumer base.”
The plant was originally owned by MEDA but a couple of years ago the county and MEDA transferred the operation to a non-profit called the Independent Specialty Agriculture Marketing and Production Association (ISAMPA).
County Manager Ashley Wooten said McDowell County has a lease agreement with ISAMPA for the building and property where the processing plant is located.
“McDowell County has no operational role with the facility,” he said Monday.
Carter said when the plant first opened more than five years ago, it was originally conceived to give minimum-wage jobs for state inmates. It had a work-release partnership with the Marion Minimum Security Prison Unit and offered transitional work for inmates who were returning to life outside of prison.
“Labor is our single biggest expense,” she said in a 2014 interview. “Our staff have no fringe benefits, no insurance, and no paid time off. We do the absolute best we can without trying to be burdensome on the grower community.”
Over time, there was deferred maintenance and repairs to the facility, she said on Monday.
And there was not enough capital to keep it operating.
“It was a terrible decision right before Thanksgiving,” said Carter on Monday. “I love this place but it was impossible to keep it running.”
To make it worse, numerous small farmers throughout North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia relied on this place where their animals could be processed into packaged, USDA-approved meats.
“By the time, we closed we were serving 300 to 400 farms and individuals annually across six states,” said Carter. “These were people who were spending their dollars in McDowell County.”
Now, those small growers will have to travel many hours to get to the next available plant. Their operations could be threatened.
Carter said Cool Hand Meats is a for-profit business she owns. Its main purpose is to manage the Foothills Pilot Plant on behalf of the non-profit ISAMPA.
The closing of the plant has ramifications beyond the operation in McDowell and those growers.
“It will virtually eliminate the presence of pastured poultry in major metropolitan markets such as Atlanta GA, Asheville NC, Boone NC, Raleigh-Durham NC, Greensboro/Winston-Salem, NC, Greenville SC, Bristol TN, Knoxville TN, and Blacksburg VA,” reads the gofundme page for this effort. “It will shut down value-added products businesses using these ingredients and it will take it off the menu in farm-to-table restaurants. $1.6 million dollars in 2017 farm sales and at least 15 jobs will be lost. Over $400,000 in wages will not be returned to the community where the facility is located.”
Many of the people who contributed money made comments on the situation.
“Keeping this plant alive is critical if little farmers like myself want to have any chance at providing local, happily raised meats to restaurants and consumers in this area,” wrote Hannah Reithin. “If Cool Hand shuts its doors permanently, Big Ag wins.”
“I didn't even know there was a poultry processor in the western part of NC - we can't lose it as soon as I even KNOW!” wrote Theresa Stenersen.
The operation was also known for its humane treatment of the animals.
“I’m vegan but I believe in the mission of people eating less meat and humanely raised and processed meat when they do eat it,” wrote Lisa Craven. “Thank you for your kind Farm.”
Carter said the gofundme page raised approximately $13,000 but it had to be returned because even that was not enough.
“It will require significant cash investment,” she said. “I would really, really like to be able to open this place back up.”