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WNC Business

NC Choices helps facilitate DTC sales for meat-producing businesses

Aug 08, 2023 01:39PM ● By Randee Brown

NC Choices is a unique program of NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the NC Cooperative Extension that works with independent pasture-raised meat producers and independent processors around the state.

North Carolina is well situated in many ways to support the growth of these agricultural businesses, according to Director Sarah Blacklin. Not only is the state well-situated in a good climate zone, it was the first state to receive millions of dollars in CARES Act money. In 2020, the state had $26 million to address the local meat supply chain which increased the sector’s capacity, and when they received federal aid in 2021, they already had a head start.

The CEFS recognized a gap in the supply chain of meat producers years ago — there were farmers and processors located around the state, and as their numbers grew, Blacklin said they needed a better way to connect to each other. NC Choices works with several partners including regulatory experts and economic development planners to help “grease the supply chain” between meat producers and their processors to make sure farms and their business supply chains are profitable.

“When NC Choices began as an initiative in 2002, there were only five farmers registered to sell meat directly to consumers,” Blacklin said. “Now, there are over 1600 individual farming businesses across the state, and about a quarter of those are in Western North Carolina.”

According to Blacklin, there is a lot happening with their partners and programming across the state, especially in WNC. The program offers a wide range of support to those in the livestock sector including education, technical assistance, peer-to-peer networking, regulatory interpretation, tool development, and support for price-to-market capacity.

The Cooperative Extension has multiple agents in every county to support both livestock and vegetable farming, coming together with local food agents to learn what local producers need to be successful and providing answers to questions, educational workshops including topics like agribusiness, and other farm resources as needed.

Blacklin said the nice thing about NC Choices is working with the small-scale sector. Partner independent farmers must produce pasture-raised meat with no hormones or antibiotics, and processors must be independently-owned businesses rather than those servicing a large-scale market. The program works with farms raising a variety of animals for meat. The largest percentage of those is beef, and there are also farms raising pork and chicken, plus a rising market for sheep and lamb.

“There is a huge opportunity in North Carolina, especially Western North Carolina, for meat producers and processors,” Blacklin said. “The geography doesn’t always yield to accommodating different agricultural production systems, and livestock can better handle the terrain better than perhaps some vegetable farms.”

The geography of the region plays a big piece for processors as well, according to Blacklin. Hauling huge trailers full of livestock in some areas would be really difficult and some roads may prevent this possibility altogether, adding complexities to this process. The region needs more meat processing facilities that can easily connect with the area’s smaller producers.

“There is exciting movement right now with new and expanding facilities,” Blacklin said. “The area is ripe and churning for expansion in this sector, and we are looking at new and expanding grant funding to help support that.”

A new online platform acting as a consumer directory, MeatSuite, can help consumers find local farms selling meat in bulk. Blacklin said farmers can post their offerings to this platform for free, helping to increase sales channels for farmers.

“Before this program, consumers had no way to find a lot of these producers,” Blacklin said. “It’s a sales channel that helps to get money flowing between urban and rural areas. There are about 300 NC farms in MeatSuite, and 20% of those are in WNC. This is helpful for everyone — bulk sales mean bigger sales for the farmers, it’s easier for the processors, and it’s cheaper for the consumers.”

Blacklin said many local businesses are being created or expanding. The Watauga Butchery in the High Country opened in 2020 to help local farmers when supply chain issues prevented them from getting their livestock to backed-up processors. Some farms like Raising Roots Farm in Hickory and Vandele Farms in Lake Lure are opening up their own ‘cut and wrap’ facilities to sell their own products. The Chop Shop in Asheville is expanding its downtown location to add a USDA-certified ‘cut and wrap’ facility behind the retail storefront. 

“There was lots of good that has come out of the bad,” Blacklin said. “The pandemic sparked creative thinking and business ideas in a variety of ways throughout this industry.”