July 2015 Cover Story: Agriculture

Agriculture’s missing link

Pigs surround Lucki 7 Livestock Co. owner Steve G. Winkler, Rodman. Mr. Winkler is a member of the steering committee that is working to develop a USDA-certified meat-processing plant in Watertown. Mr. Winkler’s manages a naturally certified livestock farm specializing in pork. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Pigs surround Lucki 7 Livestock Co. owner Steve G. Winkler, Rodman. Mr. Winkler is a member of the steering committee that is working to develop a USDA-certified meat-processing plant in Watertown. Mr. Winkler’s manages a naturally certified livestock farm specializing in pork. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

As plans for a state-of-the-art meat-processing facility are unveiled, north country farmers say the project is the latest boon for an ever-growing local industry.

By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Business

The trip down Interstate 81 to Pennsylvania is a long and bumpy road. From North Harbor Dairy in Sackets Harbor, it’s more than 330 miles. That’s about a five-hour trip for the cull cattle, those dairy cows that no longer produce milk, to be transferred from a north country farm where they were raised to the out-of-state harvesting site. Co-owner Ronald C. Robbins’ animals are only a fraction of the 160,000 large livestock available annually for meat production within a 100-mile radius of Watertown, 90 percent of which leave Northern New York.

Nearby Lucki 7 Livestock Co. in Rodman is a naturally certified livestock farm specializing in pork. Owner Steve G. Winkler ships his animals, some of the 3,258 head of hog in the north country, to Utica to be processed. That’s about a 70-mile, 90-minute trip.

North country livestock are shipped miles away from home for harvest because the region has no large-scale U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat processing facility of its own.

A group of local farmers, developers and educators recently announced a plan to change that.

On Thursday, June 25, details were unveiled for the New York Meat Co., a 42,000 square-foot USDA-certified meat processing facility with the capacity to harvest 100 large cattle a day, along with 200 to 300 smaller animals. Leading the efforts is a steering committee of investors including Mr. Robbins, Mr. Winkler and farmer Ronald R. Porter, Adams, and developer Michael E. Lundy, CEO of Lundy Development Corp., Carthage.

“If you look at just the pure numbers on this, this is truly a transformational project for the community,” Mr. Lundy said. “I’ve been around large-scale manufacturing, and I can’t think of a project that would have this kind of impact on an industry that this will have for agriculture.”

According to current projections, the plant is to be built in three stages, starting in spring 2016. The first stage is expected to cost $20.6 million, with another $10 million added with the completion of stages two and three.

The committee estimates the facility will employ about 60 people, along with an additional 100 or more working on its design and construction.

The idea was floated and a committee formed in 2014, but progress faltered when the original developer withdrew. Those involved at that point knew the project had potential.

“Our small steering committee said, ‘This makes too much sense to let it die,’” Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator, said.

The past 10 years have brought growth in smaller USDA-certified plants, but not larger facilities, Mr. Winkler said. There are presently two USDA-certified plants in the north country: Red Barn Meat in Croghan, about 33 miles from Watertown, and Ward Willard & Son in Heuvelton, about 58 miles from Watertown. Local farms also utilize Gold Medal Packing, a USDA-certified plant in Utica, about 75 miles from Watertown. Livestock not processed by these plants are usually sent to Pennsylvania for harvest.

Completion of New York Meat Co. would keep livestock local, as well as jobs and money, Mr. Winkler explained.

Animals shipped long distances to processing plants tend to lose up to 15 percent of their body mass on the trip due to lack of food and water, and also because of high stress. This means a loss of revenue for the farmer, on top of transportation costs. Having access to a plant located off Interstate 81 could cut down on those losses and fees.

“We can talk about all the economic benefits, but there’s also a humane side of this as well,” Mr. Robbins said. “Having these animals go through a facility [like New York Meat Co.] would nearly eliminate stress levels on these animals.”

The steering committee hopes the impact will reach well past Jefferson County, and into Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties, as well as Central New York and Ontario.

Farmers have already begun to consider what a local meat processing plant would do for them. Andrew J. Gilbert is the co-owner of Adon Farms in Potsdam, a dairy operation producing about 30 cull cattle a month. Right now, most of those livestock go to sale and then are processed in Pennsylvania. Mr. Gilbert said he hopes to utilize New York Meat Co.

“It’s good to have another outlet for beef processing. There’s no processing plant to handle a large number of cattle around here,” he said, adding that he’s glad to see potential job creation in the north country as well.

With 60 positions to fill at the facility, it could help not only farmers in a 100-mile radius from Watertown, but also those looking for work.

“People will travel for employment and bring their animals to where they’re going to get their best service,” Michele E. LeDoux, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County, said. She explained that while the facility is planned to be built in Jefferson County, she believes it will have a regional impact on an area plagued by high unemployment.

Mrs. Ledoux and her husband, Steve, run the Adirondack Beef Co. in Croghan. The diversified livestock farm produces about 40 beef cows a year, along with sheep, hogs, chickens and turkeys. Until recently, they sent their livestock to Red Barn Meats and Tri-Town Packing Corp., the latter of which has lost its USDA-certification.

“So from our standpoint, it was a bit of a dilemma,” she said.

Mrs. Ledoux explained that a smaller operation like Red Barn Meats doesn’t have the same capacity to do new and different cuts of meat that consumers demand. With a new state-of-the-art facility, a beef farm like the Ledoux’s will not only have another outlet for their product, but one that could satisfy growing consumer needs.

With the groundwork for the plant proposed, and a potential location at Mr. Lundy’s 9-acre property at the industrial park site earmarked, plans began to fall into place. Those involved agree that the timing couldn’t be better.

“It’s really ramping up and that’s mostly because the local food movement is really on a straight arrow upward in growth,” Mr. Winkler said, explaining that customers are now demanding local products, and there are local businesspeople willing to invest in production costs.

Consumers want to know where their food is coming from and easily be able to follow that path from farm to table, Mr. Robbins said. If locally raised livestock is being harvested at a local facility, it’s easier for people to connect those dots.

Developer Michael E. Lundy, CEO of Lundy Development Corp., Carthage stands in front of the site for the proposed $20m New York Meat Co. in the Jefferson County Industrial Park off Coffeen Street at Interstate 81 in the town of Watertown. Investors hope to break ground on the plant in spring 2016. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Developer Michael E. Lundy, CEO of Lundy Development Corp., Carthage stands in front of the site for the proposed $20m New York Meat Co. in the Jefferson County Industrial Park off Coffeen Street at Interstate 81 in the town of Watertown. Investors hope to break ground on the plant in spring 2016. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

The team is still developing a long-term business plan, but already has initial ideas for funding in hand. The development group plans to seek a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement from the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, and also to apply for funding toward equipment through the governor’s $1.5 billion upstate revitalization competition. Private investors, including local farmers, will also serve as a source of funding.

The construction of the entire 110,000 square-foot facility is planned to be broken down into three phases, with hopes to begin operation after the completion of phase one in late 2016 or early 2017.

“When we first started putting our team together, the entire team’s mentality was to try to develop a facility that’s exceptionally modern, state-of-the-art and exceptionally clean,” Mr. Lundy said.

One planned component of the first phase is the installation of a well for potable water to supply the 50,000 gallons of cleaning water needed a day. The harvest area is to be cleaned and disinfected each night, Mr. Lundy said. All the harvest and processing equipment, as well as an administrative area, classroom and lab space, also fall into the first phase of construction. The classroom and lab could be utilized by students enrolled in Jefferson Community College’s culinary arts program.

“The building itself is going to be extremely green,” Mr. Lundy said, explaining that for the initial plans, the developers aim to use geothermal and solar energy, with the consideration of wind energy in the future.

Also included in phase one is the holding pen area, which will be relatively dark, with heated floors and fresh water, Mr. Lundy said. The facility is being designed so the trucks bringing in the livestock unload directly into the building.

“[The plant is] relatively conservative in its appearance,” he said. “The whole idea was to make it look like it belongs in the industrial park.”

The remnants of the process are to be taken out daily, Mr. Lundy said. Ninety percent of the animal is used, and the remainder — hides, manure and any other parts — are to be picked up and transported out of the facility via trucks.

Phase two would add an additional 20,000 square feet to the facility, doubling the holding pen area and increasing the processing and packaging area.

The increased area translates into increased production, with the plant processing six days a week and 8,000 animals a month, Mr. Lundy said. That’s the maximum capacity they’re aiming for, he added.

The project is planned to be completed by the addition of 50,000 square feet of refrigerated warehouse space in phase three, which will facilitate direct distribution from the facility.

Phases two and three add about $10 million to the estimated project cost.

A rendering of the proposed New York Meat Co. in the Jefferson County Industrial Park off Coffeen Street near Interstate 81 in the town of Watertown. Photo courtesy New York Meat Co.

A rendering of the proposed New York Meat Co. in the Jefferson County Industrial Park off Coffeen Street near Interstate 81 in the town of Watertown. Photo courtesy New York Meat Co.

New York Meat Co. is aiming to impact far more than just the north country.

“I think we at first will be addressing the northeast market, primarily New York City. Nobody has scratched the surface of supplying local to New York City,” Mr. Winkler said, referring in particular to the New York City school district, which currently imports meat from out of state.

He added that he wouldn’t want to forget about cities closer to home, like Albany, Rochester, Utica, Buffalo and Syracuse. The team hopes to get their products into everything from larger chains like Wegmans and Hannaford Brothers to smaller “mom and pop” grocery stores and bodegas, he said. Local restaurants would be another potential market.

“You put a pocket of restaurants together from Sackets Harbor or Syracuse or the Adirondacks, you’re going to support a whole bunch of farmers,” Mr. Winkler said.

If plans for this proposed plant come to fruition, it has the potential to change the agricultural community in the north country.

“It’s going to allow the beef industry to just explode,” Mr. Lundy said.

The north country is known for its success in the dairy industry, but has not yet had the opportunity to excel in the beef industry. With little use for bull calves, it’s common for farmers to sell them off at a young age. And with a local USDA-certified meat processing plant, farmers have more reason to raise the male cows for eventual harvest at New York Meat Co.

The north country has seen recent growth in the sector of small livestock production, Mr. Matteson said, adding that this facility could spur development in that industry even further.

Since the project was initially proposed, the steering committee has yet to come across any major problems. Until this point, they’ve looked at the “what if,” Mr. Winkler said; now that the public has been clued in and the committee has started to put pen to paper, the real work begins.

Those involved agree they have a long road ahead, but they remain optimistic.

“We’re pretty excited to see this,” Mr. Matteson said. “Since 2002, it’s been on the radar screen as a need here in Northern New York. The pieces started coming together in 2014. We think we’ve got the right momentum. The right situation is at hand. We’re hoping that we can make it happen this time.”

Lorna Oppedisano is a staff writer and editorial assistant for NNY Magazines. Contact her at loppedisano@wdt.net or 661-2381.