By Julia Sendor
For The Register-Herald
WHITE OAK —
It’s a mouth-watering list: sugar-cured ham, country-cured ham, summer sausage, hot dogs, bratwurst, pepperoni, jerky, barbecue ribs and cuts of lamb and goat. West Virginia residents will soon have a chance to buy all these products locally raised and processed in a state-approved Raleigh County facility.
According to operator Gary Redden of White Oak Quality Meats the new meat-processing facility is expected to opens its doors in Shady Spring by May 1.
Raleigh County’s WVU Extension Agent David Richmond explained that the facility will transform the economics of small-scale meat production in southern West Virginia.
“Once we get the facility opened, it’s going to be an avalanche,” said Richmond.
“There’s a big push for locally grown foods,” he added, pointing out that many farmers’ markets meet the demand for local produce but not locally processed meat. “People are also more conscious about the meat they’re eating these days, due to health reasons.”
Redden pointed out that White Oak Quality Meats will fill a large gap for regional meat processing.
“We’ll be the only ones around that do what we’re going to do,” he said.
To cure hams, for example, hog producers currently have to travel to Ravenswood for the closest facility.
Rusty Martin, who raises sheep with his wife at Split Britches Farm in Cool Ridge, said he is eagerly awaiting the new operation.
“It’s going to be a very big deal...it’s going to be a big boost to the local economy,” he said.
White Oak Quality Meats will be able to slaughter and process sheep, goats, and hogs, and to process deer. Redden explained that the facility can process but not slaughter cows. Redden and his three-member crew plan to slaughter two days a week, with up to 20 animals each day.
Redden described how the new facility will allow producers to sell meat to retailers, rather than to a livestock market and earn far greater profits.
“It’s crazy for people to slaughter animals and sell them on the market for $110, when they can get three times that amount with retail cuts,” he said.
Richmond added that it gives small producers more control over the marketing process.
“You’re in the driver’s seat; you call the shots,” he said.
In anticipation of the new plant, the Mountain State Lamb and Chevon Association has already formed, with over 40 members and a core working group of local farmers.
Members travel to monthly meetings from Raleigh, Summers, Greenbrier, Monroe, Mercer and Fayette counties. Together, the members have approximately 400 sheep and 300 goats.
“You pool your resources together to be able to serve the demand,” said Redden.
Since they began meeting last spring, the association has worked to prepare for the facility with a marketing plan.
“We’re designed as a marketing association to assist small ruminant producers in direct marketing,” explained Richmond.
At the group’s last meeting on March 8, they began developing a way to handle large orders collectively, to benefit all members, while coordinating product lists as well as orders. Richmond is working with the group to create specialized labeling.
To attract attention to the less-traditional sheep and goat offerings, the group is also planning open houses, field days and taste tests that showcase the meat.
“Everybody knows where to get a fresh beef or fresh hog, but not everybody necessarily knows where to get fresh sheep or fresh goat,” said Richmond. “A lot of people have never tried lamb or goat meat. It’s some of the best meat you'll ever taste, and it’s healthy.”
Association President Steve Johnston, of Mercer County, pointed out that the new facility will not only benefit producers, but also consumers in search of a meat product they can trust.
“You’re selling directly to the consumer, so he knows what he’s getting — so he’s getting a quality animal,” said Johnston. He explained that the Mountain State Lamb and Chevon Association will develop strict quality-control guidelines for all meats under their label.
Redden described how popular demand actually inspired him to open the facility. He had operated a deer-processing facility for two months out of the year but kept receiving requests to expand his operations.
“There’s a need,” explained Redden. “We always have people calling and saying, ‘Hey, would you slaughter this, slaughter that?’”
Redden and Richmond worked with Dr. Ken Turner of the Agricultural Research Service in Beaver to organize sheep and goat producers to join forces to take advantage of the new operation.
The association and promise of a new facility drew in small-scale producers like Ed and Kathy Centers, of Farley Hill, near Coal City. They run Centers Farm and Vineyard, and currently sell their goats at the livestock market in Beckley.
However, Ed, retired from the Air Force and Two-Way Radio, said that the new facility will broaden his markets.
“It gives us an outlet for the products that we are carrying,” he said, explaining that the Pennsylvania has the closest market that buys meat at a price that can actually significantly support producers.
“It will promote the sale of goats and lamb and sheep,” added Kathy.
Martin pointed out that within a special niche, demand is raising for sheep and goat meat.
“It seems to be a logical choice, with the ethnic population, for the marketing,” said Martin. “There’s what appears to be a very large market out there.”
Martin has already contacted West Virginia meat businesses eager to buy his products once the facility opens.
Ultimately, however, Martin agreed with Richmond about one of the fundamental benefits of access to locally raised meat — good health.
“My wife and I started this farm because we felt the need to have more healthy choices,” said Martin. “The big businesses seem to have let it go by the wayside. I think it’s important for people to take notice of the food and how it affects them.”
The next Mountain State Lamb and Chevon Association meeting is at 6 p.m. April 12. For more information, contact Richmond at 304-255-9321.