Hot Real Estate Market Not Affecting USDA Meat Processing Plants

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hooked meat
Meat hangs in a refrigerator at a federally inspected meat processing plant owned by John and Sookie Jamieson. The couple bought the mill in 1994 and operated it to process mutton until last year when they decided to retire. Now they process the animals for other people until the plant is sold. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

LATROBE, PA – One USDA inspected meat processing plant for sale; located on 4.3 acres near Latrobe, Pennsylvania; created for the slaughter and processing of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Asking price: $ 1.25 million.

The rest of the real estate market is hotter than ever, but apparently this is not the case with the slaughterhouses. John and Sookie Jamison’s Meat Factory has been up for sale since the beginning of the year, but no one is buying yet.

Despite all the talk about the need for more small processors and the lack of processing capacity for small farms, one would think that a turnkey USDA plant would be easy to sell. The fact that it is still in the market is a sign of broader industry problems: a maze of tangled federal regulations, the complexity of running a customer-centric business, and a struggle to retain skilled workers.

This is a problem for people like the Jamison who want to leave the business without having a family to take over.

“My disappointment is that if I was 30 it would be an easy task for me,” John said. “I’m going out because I’m 74.”

Sookie and John Jamison stand in front of their home near Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

The only way

The Jamiesons knew nothing about recycling when they bought the plant in 1994. They just knew it was the only way to expand their mail order lamb business to high-end restaurants and retail customers across the country. Restaurants need consistency. Having their own factory gave them the necessary control over the process to guarantee the quality and stability of their products. They could also process the supply needed to meet the demand.

Before they bought the plant, “we drove all over western Pennsylvania to butcher it,” Sookie said. “Nobody would cut meat the way I wanted. I was pretty picky.

Buying and running the USDA’s own plant was a big investment and a big risk, but it paid off in the end. At their peak, they produced 5,000 lambs a year. COVID-19 hit last spring and their restaurant business came to a halt in no time.

“That was 60-80% of our business,” John said. “The last regular restaurant we sold to was March 14th (2020).”

They sold to their retail customers for the rest of the year and decided to shut down. The plant was put up for sale. Some people showed interest, but so far no one has made an offer.

Jamison Farm Background

Raising hundreds of lambs every year and running his own meat processing plant is a venture that Jamison has retreated to. The couple returned to the Latrobe neighborhood where John grew up in the 1970s with the goal of buying an old farmhouse for renovation. The catch was that the house was located on 64 hectares.

They were not from farming families. John worked in the sales department. Sukie ran a restaurant business.

“We were kids in the 60s,” John said. “We were not farmers. We were English majors from Washington and Jefferson. [University]… We thought about raising [sheep] it was good on the grass. “

Since they had land, they made their children raise and show sheep for 4-H. Sukey became the leader of 4-H. When they raised lambs for themselves, Sookie used it in her catering business as well, and they started selling freezer lamb locally.

Everything was planted with grass. John says they were among the first in the region to alternate grazing. They bought lambs for food and drove them away, but left a few sheep for fattening.

The couple started a mail-order business, knowing that there was no strong local lamb market at the time. Some newspapers wrote about their farm. They ran a small ad in the New Yorker magazine. The rest was word of mouth.

Restaurants and chefs on the East Coast began ordering from Jamison Farm. This gave them a stable weekly job. Retail shoppers were more seasonal in nature, buying a lot around Easter, as well as the fall and winter holiday seasons.

For about ten years, when they built their business, they used different processors. Then in 1994 the opportunity arose to buy a plant inspected by the USDA, and they bought it. At their peak, they ate 5,000 lambs a year, selling mail order cuts and other products such as soup, meat pies and sausages.

Rarity

“USDA small businesses are rarely put up for sale on the open market,” said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Support Network. Maybe one or two a year. Basically, they are passed on to the next generation in the family that owns it, or they are sold on the owner’s existing network.

“There is no group of investors willing to buy small plants,” she said.

Depending on the age of the plant, it may be difficult for them to obtain funding. They rate poorly, Thistlethwaite said, especially if they might need repairs. Last year, the average construction price for a new meat processing plant was around $ 350 per square foot, although the price is likely higher now given the rise in building materials costs this year.

Thistlethwaite said the smallest spaces she sees are about 5,000 square feet. The total area of ​​Jamison’s plant is 6,810 square feet. A plant of this size would cost more than $ 2 million to build. It will cost even more to equip it. When the Jamiesons bought the plant in 1994, they closed the deal on Friday and were operated by the USDA the following Monday.

Occasionally, depending on the age and condition of the plant, buyers may need a completely new inspection permit from the USDA. This will mean updating things that were previously inherited. Federal regulations and expectations are difficult and confusing to navigate, in addition to being expensive.

meat-packing plant
The USDA has inspected a Jamison family meat factory located on 4 acres near Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

There are grants to help recyclers upgrade or expand. In June, the USDA announced $ 55.2 million in grants under a new Meat and Poultry Inspection Preparedness Grant Program.

On top of that, while farmers love to talk about wanting to start their own business, few actually do it. It is rare to do what the Jamiesons have done.

“Moving from farmer to slaughterhouse operator is a full-time job,” Thistlethwaite said. “It’s hard to do both if you don’t have a business big enough to hire people.”

Waiting for the game

However, the Jamiesons thought there might be more interest given all the discussions they’ve heard over the years on smallholder processing. And now, when the opportunity has arisen, no one bites. This is perplexing and a little upsetting for the couple.

They thought that perhaps a group of farmers could come together and pool resources to buy and operate a plant, creating a direct selling business, as the Jamiesons did. But they also know they have to work hard.

“Sookie and I owned the farm,” John said. “A 212 acre farm with 23 pens, all fenced in and flooded with water. Having passed so many animals through it, only she, me and the border collie were left. Then start the plant, confident that everything is in order, put up with the USDA, which is not easy. It’s a necessary thing, but it’s not easy. ”

They have kept the plant running since they announced it was up for sale. Although it only handled lambs for most of 30 years, it was originally created to handle cattle. The Jamiesons began to process livestock, pigs and lambs for other people while they waited for the sale. There are several employees who can stay to staff it after the sale.

Once the plant is sold, the Jamiesons will officially retire. They still have about 150-200 sheep, but will not buy lambs for feed this year.

“I recently spoke to a friend who said he was retiring,” John said. “I asked him why. He said, “Well, I want to smell the flowers before I pick them up.” That’s where I am. “

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

sheep in the pasture
Sheep and lambs pasture at Jamison Farm in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

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