As agriculture continues to grow and expand across North Carolina, small independent meat processors have become a vital part of meeting the growing demand for food both at home and across the nation.
That’s where the Improving Meat Production Efficiency and Capacity grant program comes in. Created in September 2020 to help independent processors deal with booms in business created by situations like COVID, IMPEC is a highly flexible program which allows grantees to pinpoint the specific areas in which they can best use the funding.
Take, for instance, Fulcher’s Seafood in Alliance. Chrissy Fulcher Cahoon, Vice-President, has a long family history in the business.
“I am fourth generation in the seafood business, and my dad owns three other facilities which are the primary processors for seafood, meaning right out of the ocean,” said Fulcher Cahoon. “We focus on fish, shrimp, oysters and scallops, and we own our own vessels so we are fully vertically integrated from the ocean to the retail customer.”
Like many small processors in North Carolina, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wave of new business as consumers looked to source available products when supplies tightened. While this presented opportunities for smaller producers, it also meant their existing facilities and equipment were suddenly inadequate for the demand placed on them.
“COVID hit us hard in many different ways. We were a small plant, and we just opened in 2018. As profits have been providing, we’ve been putting those profits back into the plant to grow it. COVID kind of helped that, in that we had more needs than what we could grow fast enough for,” Fulcher Cahoon said. “We really couldn’t meet those needs as quickly as we needed to, because profits only go so far.”
Fulcher’s also operated in a small space, which presented challenges around social distancing. Taken together, the pandemic represented an opportunity for the young business to take a big step forward, but also presented a new slate of obstacles in the way of that very same goal.
Fulcher Cahoon began looking for ways to help the company upgrade, and that’s where IMPEC came in. With the help of Sam Brake, NCDA&CS Agricultural Program Specialist, Fulcher Cahoon applied for and received a grant for around $550,000, which went toward improving several aspects of the Fulcher’s operation.
“It allowed us to build on to our existing facility and add a larger break room, restroom facilities and a sanitation room for our employees so they were able to space out a bit. It also assisted us in purchasing some new equipment that helped us take advantage of the growth we were experiencing,” Fulcher Cahoon said. “Even though we were a bit late in the game, we were still able to kind of catch on to those opportunities being granted to us and show people that yes, we can get you the product that you want.”
This is especially important for a business like Fulcher’s, which is one of the few value-added seafood producers in the state. While North Carolina sees between nine and 12 million pounds of shrimp landed in the state every year, about 80 perent of that is shipped out of state and provides relatively little profit for local businesses. By processing and adding to the shrimp caught and landed in NC, business like Fulcher’s can help keep some of that value and local jobs in the state.
With the new space and equipment, Fulcher Cahoon is looking to explore new opportunities in the near future. By expanding the number and size of retailers that Fulcher’s sells to, the business doubled in sales during 2021 and is expected to do close to the same in 2022. While that will likely slow down eventually, Fulcher Cahoon said that the company is also looking to expand into food service as part of an overall diversification plan.
To learn more about Fulcher’s Seafood, visit www.fulchers.com. You can also find them on Facebook, Instagram and Pintrest.