Two North Carolina seafood processors that have received grant money through a NCDA&CS grant program hosted a tour recently to show off their facilities. While the point of the tour wasn’t to highlight the improvements made with the grant money, those improvements couldn’t be ignored. They have become an important part of each business’s operations and plans for improvement.
The tour was part of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission Agricultural Leadership Development Program. Participants were getting a firsthand look at some agriculture in eastern North Carolina, which brought them to Hyde County – specifically Mattamuskeet Seafood/Shell Point Shellfish in Swan Quarter and Engelhard Mattamuskeet Seafood/Diamond Shoal Shrimp Co. in Engelhard.
Program participants got a general overview of each facility’s operations, and that included some relatively new improvements paid for through the Increasing Meat Processing Efficiency and Capacity grant program. The IMPEC grant funding came from money earmarked for North Carolina in the federal “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act” – commonly called the CARES Act. With approval from the N.C. General Assembly, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler announced in September 2020 that NCDA&CS would create and administer the IMPEC grant program. Because of a shortage of meat on store shelves as the pandemic first surged, the goal was to help independent meat processors (including seafood processors) in the state make improvements and increase their output.
At Mattamuskeet Seafood and Shell Point Shellfish in Swan Quarter, Callie Carawan explained that one of the big IMPEC-assisted purchases was a new walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler.
“We needed a new freezer/cooler to help with our business and to grow and have places for storage, and when we get it up and going it’ll be a great benefit,” Carawan said. “Say we couldn’t sell crab meat today. Well, with the freezers that we have, if it’s full of crab cakes or full [of anything], that [new space] gives us an opportunity to have some places to store extra, freeze extra that we can later sell. Whereas right now we don’t necessarily have that going for us, and in COVID all that stuff had slowed down tremendously, and there was times that we had to put stuff in the freezer. So something like that would definitely help.”
Carawan explained that when restaurants shut down and people’s grocery buying preferences changed at the beginning of the pandemic, the family business had lots of extra product without enough space to store it. It would have helped to have more space so they could store more product for later. Moving forward, the extra space will help because much of the seafood business is seasonal. So even now, having extra space will mean the company can freeze more product (e.g., crab meat) and then have more to sell during the traditional off season.
Down the road at Engelhard Mattamuskeet Seafood and Diamond Shoal Shrimp Co., Patrice Clarke has a similar story to tell. She’s been working to expand her Diamond Shoal Shrimp Co. brand and its “Royal Shrimp Cakes” product. She’s also used IMPEC funds to help buy a large walk-in freezer, which hasn’t been delivered yet.
“I’m going to need a freezer to store product and to store shrimp so I can make the shrimp cakes later on and make it a year round thing. Right now I don’t have any capacity to do that,” Clarke said. “Right now, I’m seasonal, but my goal is to freeze the shrimp, and if I could make shrimp cakes a couple of days a week, I can do that year round.”
Clarke applied for and was awarded funding in the second round of the IMPEC grant program. So some of the things like the freezer are still in the works. She’s also used the funding to help create an FDA-compliant prep room, complete with stainless steel counters and a smaller walk-in freezer. She also used the assistance to purchase a forklift and is getting a freezer truck to make deliveries directly to stores or restaurants.
The Carawans in Swan Quarter received IMPEC aid through the first and second rounds of the program. While the new walk-in freezer is in place, it still needs a specific part and a technician to install it before it’ll work. The company has also purchased a forklift, a couple of electric pallet jacks, a crab cake maker and a bowl cutter with IMPEC funds. They have plans to purchase a blast freezer and a conveyer and also replace their steamer and boiler with help from the grant program too.
“[The boiler] was definitely something that was getting ready to have to happen, but we may not have been able to afford to do the cooker and the boiler at the same time,” Carawan said. “And they go hand in hand, so it kind of needed to go together, but without that help, we wouldn’t have necessarily been able to do that.”
Far from a financial “freebie”
The timing of the IMPEC grants has been a double-edged sword for both companies. Like many things in business, the decision to make improvements wasn’t simple and obvious. Carawan and Clarke said they wouldn’t have been able to make many of the improvements – and certainly not all at once – if not for the IMPEC program. So the money helped them move forward. At the same time, the deadlines of the program have prompted them to move forward with updates even at a time when COVID-19 has created high prices for equipment and supplies and also a shortage of parts, equipment and labor to help make the improvements.
Increasing costs is a particular concern for the grant recipients since they have to make purchases with their own money upfront before getting reimbursed. They also aren’t getting full funding for their improvements. They still have to match the grant funding by contributing $1 for every $2 in grant funding (meaning they’re paying a third of the final costs). Again, they’ve had to pay all the money upfront first. It’s a way to be sure the improvements are truly needed by the facilities and that the processors “have skin in the game,” explained one of the IMPEC grant coordinators Joe Hampton.
Carawan said the cost of the blast freezer tripled within weeks while she searched for prices. The cooler has yet to be delivered, and the new freezer’s need for a part and an installer is another example of a pandemic challenge.
It has also been a down year for some seafood, particularly shrimp. So Clarke’s income is off by about 75%. If not for the grant deadlines, she would have waited to incur some big expenses, but she decided to go ahead and make changes while the financial help was available.
While the costs and other challenges have been a concern and frustration, Clarke and Carawan said they have still been happy to get the assistance while they can.
“It’s definitely helped us tremendously to improve,” Carawan said.