Business & Economy
5:25 am
Wed February 1, 2012

Non-Profit Poultry Plant Opens in Marion

A first-of-its-kind meat processing center has opened in Western North Carolina. The Foothills Pilot Plant is a non-profit operation designed to help small farmers and impact the local food movement.

Jeff Tiberii: Foothills Pilot Plant sits behind a prison off of a gravel road, about 40 miles east of Asheville. It’s a non-descript building that could pass for a small warehouse. Inside workers process game; chickens, turkeys, rabbits and ducks. The site can handle 1-thousand birds per day. A little more than an hour away in North Wilkesboro Tyson Foods can process 160-thousand chickens per day. Needless to say this is a relatively small operation.

Smithson Mills: The purpose of this project is not for the project itself to generate vast sums of money; it’s to put more money in the pockets of the farmers.

Smithson Mills is a consultant in agricultural economic development. He helped create the Foothills Pilot Plant and now serves on its advisory board. McDowell County donated the land. The money to build the facility came from the Golden Leaf Foundation, the state’s Rural Economic Development Center and the Appalachian regional commission. For the roughly 35 game farmers in this region, the site offers a nearby processing plant and that means savings on gas and time. The plant can also provide the coveted USDA stamp of inspection, allowing meat to be sold to supermarkets and across state lines. Mills says having access to USDA approval also allows farmers to produce more than 1-thousand birds each year.

Mills: These small growers can grow as many as their market will demand. So we anticipate that some growers who may have grown a thousand birds per year in the last several years may be able to go to 5,000 birds this year, and then 10,000.

Almost all of the farmers in the region have free-range chickens. Processing these birds takes about one day. After they’re killed they go through a scalder, clucker, and the evisceration room. The meat is then cut and vacuum sealed before heading to a freezer room until pick-up. Handling this work are the employees from right next door.

Prisoner: I’m at Marion Minimum Security Unit, and I’ve got 21 months left, then it will be over.

Foothills Pilot Plant and the prisoner have asked that we do not use his name, per North Carolina Department of Corrections policy. He’s a father of one, serving time at the minimum security prison for drug trafficking. He works 30 to 40 hours a week, receiving minimum wage. Other inmates have jobs that pay less than a dollar a day.

Prisoner: It’s a win-win situation both ways, cause not only is it giving local farmers a chance to make revenue for their farms, but it’s a great chance for us inmates who are getting ready to go home and need some extra money to stand on, when we get out.

Currently, eight prisoners, an intern and a building manager work at the facility. An advisory board sets the prices charged to farmers. The competitive cost caught the attention of Amy Foster who co-owns a farm with her husband in Iron Station, northwest of Charlotte.

Amy Foster: We’re here for a tour today and I’m interested in seeing how their packaging is, because our customers are used to a certain standards and I’m anxious to see what they’re offering here.

Foster’s farm grew 25-hundred chickens last year. She sells many of the birds to a couple of restaurants in uptown Charlotte and several buying clubs. Driving to this plant instead of Siler City would save her thousands of dollars each year. Advisory Board member Smithson Mills says the site will help farmers grow their businesses and provide consumers with more cage-free local meat. His plan is for the plant to break even in the first three years.

Mills: In 10 or 15 years this facility could be too small to accommodate the demand. At that point there will be enough cash flow and markets developed that farmers if they want to could probably pull their resources and build a plant themselves.

For now, he is regularly meeting with farmers and spreading the word about the first non-profit meat processing plant in the country.