County commits $300K to Phase II efforts for creating a meat processing facility in Page

Cow grazing

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, March 20 — After nearly 90 minutes of presentations and discussion, the Page County Board of Supervisors on Monday unanimously voted to commit up to $300,000 for Phase II efforts to construct and operate a meat processing facility in the Page Valley.

“Look at the businesses we have lost in this county,” District 4 supervisor and vice chairman Larry Foltz said. “This is one we can get back.”

An Agricultural Subcommittee formed by the Page County Economic Development Authority (EDA) has been pursuing the idea of a local meat processing facility for the better part of the last year. The group secured a feasibility study by consulting with a company in the midwest who has experience in such endeavors from both the agricultural and business operation perspectives. During a joint meeting on Monday evening, the EDA shared those findings with the supervisors.

“We didn’t just cook these numbers,” the consultant told supervisors. “We based them off actual results in other similar facilities. I have quite a bit of confidence in [these figures].”

A quick overview of the feasibility study shows there is enough cattle in the region to support a facility that processes 100 head of cattle per week, employs between 15 to 35 individuals, and generates substantial tax revenue for the county. The study states that there are about 450,000 cattle within 75 miles of the proposed facility in Page, which has no specific site designated. While many details remain up in the air in the early planning stages, the feasibility study described the meat processing facility as a “strong project” based on “real data” and that the county could “go forward with a great deal of confidence.”

“This is a job creator,” Page County Economic Development and Tourism Director Nina Fox told supervisors. “This is a great opportunity to invest and show our support for the agricultural community.”

The cost to construct such a facility has been estimated at $8.6 million, with a proposed public-private partnership as part of the potential plans. However, supervisors are hoping for private investment to lead the way, whether from a cooperative formed by local producers or a large company looking to expand its operations. According to Fox, about $1.7 million has already been committed to the project from the private sector.

Supervisors appear to only want to help facilitate the creation of such a facility and will consider their “return on investment” the jobs created and the taxes collected on machinery and tools, as well as real estate. Jobs created through the creation of the meat processing facility — between 15 and 35 — were estimated to average $50,000 in annual compensation, including full benefits packages.

“Skin in the game is key,” District 1 supervisor Keith Guzy said. “We have to have people involved that have skin in the game…and we, as supervisors, have to justify giving $300,000.”

The Phase II funds are intended to carry the project a step further by creating engineering designs, drawing up legal paperwork, establishing more detailed plans for marketing and distribution. The feasibility study focused on a concept of not only offering meat processing, but also developing a sales and distribution network for the operation as well.

“This gives us a chance to market Page Valley beef,” District 2 supervisor Allen Louderback said prior to the vote. “It gives us some leverage with local control, it has some merit, and I think it’s something we should look at.”

Part of the plan involves potentially utilizing meat imaging technology to grade cattle and pay for the beef according to its quality, thus catering to a premium product and market. This could draw up 10 to 15 cents per pound above market value for producers who adhere to certain growing criteria; however, local lawmakers want to ensure that the facility is available to all local producers.

One fear is that large producers in neighboring localities like Rockingham County may flood the facility and leave no room for Page farmers with a lower head count. Another concern is allowing local producers access who have a single cow, or lower quality cattle, processed without having to wait up to two years — yes, there is often a waiting list for single slaughter orders, to make way for bigger jobs — to travel to another facility in Winchester, Woodstock or Front Royal, or perhaps as far as Baltimore, Pennsylvania or Kentucky, where large monopolies reside in the meat processing industry.

“If we invest in this, there could be other industries [locally] that could come from this,” Louderback said.

The unique element that makes this meat processing facility a “custom operation” is how it hopes to integrate the processing, buying and selling of beef. Some feel the facility can produce a premium product and build a market for “Page Valley beef”, while also serving the small farmer with one cow they want to process for the family. That’s the hope of supervisors, since public funds are involved.

One member of the EDA stated on Monday, “No one still knows how it’s going to look.” There’s the question of whether an existing facility can be found and retrofitted, or if a completely new structure will be built. Where will it be located, and will that land have to be purchased, or is there county-owned property — or EDA-owned acres — that could be used for this purpose? Will the facility simply cater to and market high-end beef, or will the door be open for all Page County farmers? How many employees will it actually take to operate? How long will it take to develop markets for sales? The answers to all of these questions will directly affect the project’s cost and short-term profitability.

That’s the purpose of the next steps in Phase II — get more specific details and explore the positive and negative impacts of various options, while slowly making this project start to take shape. Once built and operational, some involved in the planning say it will still take time to “ramp up” to 100 head per week and build a consistent clientele, especially for meat “people are not going to just pick up at the supermarket.”

“Up front, there will be more cattle than we can push out,” local beef farmer and chairman of the Page County Planning Commission Jared Burner said regarding sales of the premium beef. “It is going to take time to grow those markets to make [your money] back.”

The $300,000 the county committed comes straight out the county’s fund balance, or “reserves”, which are currently quite healthy. The financial impact is fairly minimal. An actual allocation will be made during budget amendments to be proposed at a future meeting.

Supervisors requested that the EDA provide monthly reports to the board on its progress on the project and make efforts to educate the public on the proposed meat processing facility.

As the EDA begins to move forward with the implementation of some ideas contained within the feasibility study presented Monday night, both members of the EDA and the supervisors walked away from the table with an agreed goal to “help the entire farming population.”

For more information on Page County Government, visit their website.



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