What Comes First…The Chicken or the Processor?          

Last week North Carolina’s small chicken farmers were dealt a major blow when Abdul Chaudry announced the imminent closing of his USDA inspected poultry plant.

When it opened in April 2008, Chaudry’s was the only USDA-inspected facility for independent poultry producers.  Despite an early commitment from several retailers to purchase local birds, an NC Choices press release attributed Chaudry’s closing to the “decrease in volume of poultry being brought to the plant and the financial burden the plant was having on his beef, goat, and lamb processing operation next door”.

While there has been little media attention given to this announcement, the closing of this chicken plant will be felt throughout North Carolina.  The only remaining USDA poultry processor, Foothills Pilot Plant, is located in Marion and is an additional three hours west of Chaudry’s centralized Siler City location.  Unless farmers choose to process their birds under North Carolina’s exempt poultry processing guidelines, there is little doubt these increased fuel and processing fees will be passed along to the consumer…making local chicken a rare menu item for our state.

I have never met Mr. Chaudry, but I sympathize with his situation.  He was informed of a need for poultry processing and was offered grant money and support through state officials to build this infrastructure…all with the promise “if you build it, they will come”.  However, despite all of the surveys and grant projects that encompass North Carolina’s meat production, there remains a disconnect between producers, processors, and end users (both consumers and retailers) regarding our respective roles in bringing safe, consistent, local meat to our state.  Groups like NC Choices and Firsthand Foods are receiving millions of government dollars to study this connection and to build a local food system for North Carolina…however, even the best studies cannot account for the volatility of animal production, of meat processing, and of food distribution (not to mention the unsustainable longevity of these grants).

My family tackles this issue of “what comes first” on a daily basis.  Early in our farming career, we questioned whether to invest in land and livestock in hopes of reaching a larger market or to seek out the larger market to help fund the land and livestock.  As we reached our goal of larger markets, we then struggled to secure processing for these animals.  After juggling between multiple processors with varying capabilities, my family took a giant leap of faith and opened our own.  Currently, I operate an 18,000 square foot facility with the capacity to slaughter 100 head of cattle per day…not to mention the cooking and cold storage opportunities available.  However, instead of jumping into this increased production “just because we can”, my family has spent the past year growing our customer base and securing large scale distribution.  Without the safety net of grants and bank loans, we evaluate every purchasing decision and employee hire based upon their ability to grow and sustain the long term goals of Micro Summit and Harris-Robinette Beef…simply put, if we can’t pay for then we don’t buy it.

As a colleague in North Carolina’s meat processing, I have no doubt that Mr. Chaudry did everything he could to maintain his poultry facility and that he closely examined all options…not just for his family but for the chicken producers of our state.  While I may not know Mr. Chaudry personally, his experience has taught me a lot about my own business structure and the needed partnership between producers and processors.  I have big goals for my business and a desire to meet the needs of North Carolina’s livestock producers.  I want to offer retail packaging that rivals Wal-Mart, and I would love to have the beef cuber that one customer repeatedly requests.  Nothing would make me happier than to offer my staff large salaries and state benefits like the majority of the employees at these grant-funded organizations.  However, while those remain long term goals, I also want to want to be a processor that livestock producers can structure their own business around and that remains financially sustainable for many years to come.

Therefore, with every decision, I will continue to ask myself the question “what comes first?” and pray for the day that the needs of the processor and the needs of the producer are not so far apart from the reality of the consumer.

 

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