Tucked within the 382 rolling square miles of Floyd County are more than 700 farms, home to herds of cattle, some hogs, various goats and sheep.
Some are raised for their milk or wool, but many are bound for dinner tables as chops, or steaks, or stew meat.
And that’s where a problem can arise: There’s not enough capacity to handle all of the butchering and processing that needs to be done. It’s “a major need” in the heavily agricultural county, said economic and community development director Lydeana Martin.
That’s one reason there’s been so much support – both financial and moral – for a plan by a local family to open a commercial meat processing facility in Willis.
After years of planning and butchering their own meat – and then getting sidetracked by the pandemic – Madeline and Jody Akers hope to open Firehouse Farms early this spring.
From what they’re hearing, they expect to be busy.
“It’s amazing how much it’s needed, honestly,” Jody Akers said.
“I figured we’d have some naysayers, somewhere. But if people are talking negatively about it, they’ve definitely not said anything to me,” he said. “It’s just been overwhelming support. Everyone is just like, ‘Yes, get this done, we’ll be very happy to use you.’ I don’t think we’ll have any problem finding business.”
In fact, there’s a push across the country for more small, independent meat processors, as supply chain issues have meant empty shelves – and sticker shock – at grocery stores during the pandemic. Efforts have been launched at both the state and federal levels to expand the sector.
Brandon Reeves, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, said he’s heard of farmers having to schedule months – or even more than a year – in advance to get an appointment at a processor.
“There’s definitely a need to have more processing facilities in the state to help meet the demand that’s out there,” he said.
Eventually, the Akerses also want to sell their own pork to the public, at prices that are affordable to, as Jody Akers put it, “an average family like us.”
Locally raised meats tend to be expensive – in no small part, Madeline Akers said, because of how much it costs farmers to haul animals to distant slaughterhouses and processing facilities.
They believe that keeping the whole process in-house – from raising the hogs to slaughtering them and processing the pork – will mean they can keep prices down.
“That’s something that we would like to change,” Jody Akers said. “To be able to offer a quality meat that you knew had a decent life, and it ate good food, and it was treated OK, and it didn’t come from China or some other country.”
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The Akerses have been raising and butchering their own hogs for their family and for friends for years.
Jody Akers grew up in Christiansburg and has been around farming his whole life. He lived in town with his parents, he said, but spent a lot of time on the dairy farm where his uncle worked. He recalls getting together with cousins and uncles when they’d slaughter pigs and cows. Before he was 20, he had some cattle of his own.
“Jody has meat processing in his bones,” Madeline Akers said. “It’s not so much in my bones, but I’ve learned a lot in the last eight years.”
She, in fact, grew up in Richmond – where her parents owned a vegetarian restaurant.
That inevitably draws a chuckle, she knows, but she thinks it helps explain her chosen path.
“Growing up the way that I did, I do just have a huge appreciation for the animal and its sacrifice,” she said. The kind of small-scale farming that she and Jody are talking about gives animals “the life you want them to have.”
As for her parents: “They also recognize, just for all the meat-eaters out there, this is the better, more sustainable way to do it,” she said. “They’ve had our back all the way. Factory farming is something we want to get away from.”
They’d been thinking about opening a processing facility for years – probably since they got married eight years ago, she said.
They approached the county a couple of years ago to talk about how to get a small business loan. Martin said the idea clicked.
“This is such a major need in our community, having more meat processing capacity,” she said, citing the county’s 700-plus farms.
Martin said the couple wasn’t quite prepared for the financing step at that point. “But every suggestion we put out there, things for them to do to move them along, they have jumped on and gone and just kept working hard to make it happen,” she said.
Her office coached them through financial projections and budgeting, and connected them to other experts like an advisor with the regional Small Business Development Center.
When the time came for fundraising, they helped the Akerses with grant applications.
The project received $8,700 from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and just over $23,000 through the inaugural round of the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Infrastructure Program.
The program, which gave out eight awards its first year, was created by legislation sponsored during the 2021 General Assembly session by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, as a way to support local food production and sustainable agriculture.
A bill of his that cleared the House of Delegates on Tuesday would double the maximum award to $50,000 going forward.
The first round of awards ranged from $4,000 to $25,000. Among the projects that were funded were improvements to Martinsville’s farmers market, boilers for community canneries in Franklin and Prince Edward counties, and equipment to allow for flash-freezing of local produce in Shenandoah County.
“For me it was just about the process of making it easier for the small farmers, and less so about prescribing where along the value chain it needed to be injected,” Rasoul said. “I’m just glad to see some of these local farmers getting some help.”
The Akerses’ idea also received a $500 award from the county’s 2020 C4 business development pitch competition, which then served as leverage to secure $4,000 from a state program that provides an 8-to-1 match to help fund small businesses. Firehouse Farms won the C4 contest in 2021, netting another $5,000 prize.
The outside funding has changed the outlook for Firehouse Farms, Jody Akers said.
“This money that we’re getting with the grants is just going to completely change things for us,” he said. “We’ll be able to start with the proper equipment that we really wanted.”
They created their cost estimates before the pandemic hit – and before the price of building materials skyrocketed. “We’ve spent basically twice as much as we thought we would,” he said.
The total cost for the 2,100-square-foot building, they figure, will be about $80,000.
“The reason we were able to keep it as low as it is, is that we did the labor ourselves,” Madeline Akers said. “If we had had a lot more to invest in it, it would’ve been amazing to hire people. We didn’t do it this way because we wanted to build it ourselves.
“I’ve learned all kinds of building skills that I might need someday,” she said, laughing. “But it’s just the way we financially had to do things.”
Firehouse Farms will be a so-called custom-exempt facility: It will be allowed to slaughter and process livestock for the farmers who own the animals, or for customers who buy a half or quarter of an animal from a farmer. The meat it processes can’t be offered for sale; that work must be done at a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified processor.
The Akerses would like to achieve USDA certification within a couple of years; that’s when they’d be able to start selling their own pork. Martin said the couple has been smart to keep USDA requirements in mind as they’ve designed the building, making sure to include the extra cold storage space, shower and office space that federal inspectors require.
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Lauren Yoder has seen the meat processing supply-and-demand mismatch from both sides.
He’s a co-owner of Thompson’s Meat Processing in Floyd; it’s booked solid through May and is already just about full for the fall.
Agriculture – and livestock in particular – is a huge part of Floyd County’s economy, he said. “Most people who work a job also have a little bit of farmland and do that, too,” he said.
He says that a shortage of processors isn’t just a Floyd County problem. He recently had a customer from Bedford County who normally would’ve gone to a facility in Lynchburg, but it was too busy. Last week, he said, another customer came from Alabama.
But Yoder also raises cattle at No Rest Farm in Copper Hill and sells beef to the public. Thompson’s is a custom-exempt facility, so Yoder had to find a USDA-certified facility to process his own beef. Every two weeks, he drives cattle to Walnut Cove, North Carolina, near Winston-Salem – about a five-hour round trip when all is said and done, he said. And then a week later, he has to go back to pick up the meat.
Firehouse Farms will be a competitor, but existing processors just can’t keep up, he said.
“There’s room for processors everywhere,” he said. “The fact that I’m having to drive to North Carolina to get USDA inspected is crazy.”
The Firehouse project comes at what some see as a critical time for the meat industry, as prices of beef and pork have risen dramatically during the pandemic.
According to an analysis of USDA data by AgWeb, December was the ninth straight month that pork prices had risen, up as much as 9% over a year earlier. Beef prices had increased for 10 months, up as much as 10% over 2020 levels. And the prices of both are expected to increase another 2% to 3% this year.
At the same time, beef producers are receiving less money for the cattle they sell than they used to – 36.8% of the retail value last year, compared to 51.5% in 2015, Reeves said.
Farmers and politicians have blamed consolidation in the meatpacking industry, where four large companies control 85% of the business, according to a White House estimate.
The companies, in turn, have blamed rising labor costs, supply chain issues and other pandemic-related disruptions.
“And we certainly get that,” Reeves said. “But we’re dealing with that, too.”
Federal and state agencies have taken note of the supply and pricing issues.
The USDA announced $32 million in grants to 167 meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities to support expanded capacity, including awards to five Virginia companies in Appomattox, Lee, Pittsylvania, Franklin and Charlotte counties.
In early January, President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to devote $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds toward expanding the nation’s independent meat processing capacity.
“We’re anxiously awaiting more details on that, and excited about the possibilities that it could mean for our industry,” Reeves said.
In the Virginia General Assembly, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, has introduced legislation to address meat processing capacity in the state. There are currently 81 custom exempt meat operators and 34 federally inspected facilities overseen by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The bill would direct VDACS to develop a five-year strategic plan to “increase the combined throughput capacity of inspected slaughter and meat-processing facilities in the Commonwealth.”
The department also could establish a program of financial incentives and technical assistance “to the extent that public or private funds become available.”
Pillion didn’t respond to requests to talk about the bill, but Reeves said his association is “very supportive” of the legislation.
“It’s really in line with what we’ve been saying as an industry,” he said.
“We don’t have a silver-bullet solution,” he said. “We think that adding processing capacity is certainly a step in the right direction.”
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The Akerses hope to have a soft opening in early spring, which will give them a couple of months in business before they close for the summer. That’s not uncommon for small meat processing facilities, they said; demand usually drops precipitously during the hot months.
They’ll open up again in September for the fall rush.
They expect to hire at least two employees right off the bat, Jody Akers said, and hope to have at least four when they reopen in the fall.
He said he hopes they’re building something of lasting meaning, and value, for their five kids.
“That’s one of our main reasons for creating this,” he said. “We’d like to leave it to some of them. Hopefully some of them will take some interest in it, and it will give them a little bit of an opportunity.”