By the time a piece of meat hits your plate, it has gone through a long journey.
From the farm to the processing plant to the grocery store and everything in between, meat production is a complicated process which requires up-to-date infrastructure at every stage. That’s why in April 2021, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services launched the third phase of the Increasing Meat Production, Efficiency and Capacity grant program, which supports the meat and seafood industry by providing funding to small-scale processing facilities across the state.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many large processing facilities closed their doors temporarily. This quickly highlighted a need to support smaller, independent processing plants, which led to the General Assembly approving IMPEC phase 3, which includes $6 million in grants with a limit of $400,000 per project.
One of the plants which received funding from IMPEC is Mitchell’s Meat Processing in Walnut Cove. Owned by farmer and former school principal Kristi Mitchell along with her husband, Carl, the plant processes cattle, pork, lamb, goat and deer meat. The couple bought the plant in 2018 after Kristi retired from the school system, aiming to fill a need which Carl had identified during his time as Stokes County Cooperative Extension Director.
“If you’re a farmer, in order to make money you can’t just sell your cattle directly to stock yards, because you get shortchanged,” Kristi said. “Bringing it to a slaughterhouse and having it processed helps you make a profit on your farm. So, when I left the school system, we learned that this slaughterhouse was going to shut down, so we made an offer and here we are.”
The building itself was built in 1971, and much of the facility and its equipment were showing their age when the Mitchell’s took over. That meant that employees had to do certain tasks – like grinding hamburger meat – by hand, an intensive process which slowed down production significantly. This was further compounded by the huge surge in business that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, as larger facilities sent their employees home as outbreaks began.
“We went from being able to schedule an appointment one to two weeks out, to now we’re at a year. We’re now scheduling in March of 2023,” Kristi said. “People are having to plan, especially for little animals like hogs and lambs, they’re having to plan to get killed animals that aren’t even born yet.”
Faced with several areas in need of improvement, Kristi said that applying for an IMPEC grant was a no-brainer.
“We realized that we were going to need to do a lot more, and that IMPEC grant was going to allow us to do that,” she said. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
So, the Mitchells applied and were approved for a grant, which they immediately put to use upgrading their equipment and increasing the amount of space they had to work. The plant went from 40 “cow spots” – a space large enough to slaughter a cow – to 48, a significant increase in working space. New automated equipment removed the need to hand-grind hamburger meat, and that plus a new employee increased the output of that product from six packages per minute all the way to 21.
Kristi said that from here, Mitchell’s will look to expand even further into new types of products.
“We’re looking to add smokers so that we can add more value to our customers’ products. We are maxed out on size here, we cannot put another single carcass in the cooler. In order for them to kill one, we have to process one,” she said. “We can’t give our customers any more in quantity, so we’re looking for ways to increase the value of what they sell to their customers. That means adding smokers and cookers to create hot dogs, beef sticks, jerky, bacon and those kinds of finished products.”
The end goal, Kristi said, would be to move to a brand-new facility that the Mitchell’s own themselves.
Kristi praised the IMPEC program for its flexibility in what the money could be used for.
“The flexibility that they gave us to choose what would serve our plant the best, that allowed us to do what we needed to do. We couldn’t add a new cooler, but another plant could. So that plant added a cooler, which allowed them to increase because they could store more. We needed to buy equipment, and because that would also allow us to expand, we were allowed to do it.”
While some grant programs often have very specific guidelines on what money can and cannot be spent on, Kristi said that the IMPEC program allowed each plant to mold their spending to their specific needs. She expressed gratitude to NCDA&CS for administering the grants.
“Just our plant, we’ve got 20-percent more meat coming through now,” she said. “It’s a great program, and it’s great that the state did it.”