MONTEREY — The guide books love to point out that with a population of less than 2,500, Highland County has more sheep than people.
The dry air and cool season grasses make Highland County a fine place for grazing animals.
Bobbie Hefner of Monterey has been doing it for 50 years. Although the Virginia Sheep Producers Association named her Outstanding Sheep Producer of 2001, she said marketing is a challenge.
“It’s hard to make a living. Everything has to go someplace else to be done,” said Hefner, who sells beef cattle once a year through the Virginia Quality Assured program, while a man from West Virginia buys her lambs for slaughter.
That might change soon for farmers in the county. In March, construction will begin on the Allegheny Highlands Agricultural Center near Monterey. The facility will include a complete USDA-inspected slaughterhouse and a small meat processing facility that should be operational by September.
With the nearest meat processing facility 65 miles away, farmers expect to save a bundle on transportation and have more options as far as selling their product.
“It’ll help me market my cattle,” Hefner said. “I don’t know what the future will hold. We’re starting small, but at least we’re starting.”
Scott Smith, a cattle farmer who is on the advisory board for the AHAC, said people in the county like the idea of a slaughterhouse in the area.
“There’s been an overwhelming swell of community support,” Smith said. “People understand that it’s good for agriculture. Anything that’s good for agriculture is good for the region as a whole.”
Farmers stand to make more money for a “value added” product, Smith said. That means they can make more from selling packaged steaks and ground beef than a live cow. Since more and more consumers are willing to pay more for local meat, farmers might earn a premium for their product.
Plans for the AHAC grew out of the Highland Center, a community center and nonprofit business incubator, which is based in Monterey.
Betty Mitchell, executive director of the Highland Center, said plans for a local processing plant began in 2005 with a group of interested farmers. After forming a committee and conducting a feasibility study, they bought land for the facility.
They received $480,000 in a low-interest loan from USDA Rural Development. From July through December, they accrued an additional $1 million from investors. They’ll break ground on the site in March.
The AHAC will serve farmers in Highland and Bath Counties, and Pendleton and Pocahontas Counties across the West Virginia state line.
Mitchell said the facility will include meeting rooms, a library and assistance with live animal marketing and job training. It will be able to slaughter, process and package 20 beef cattle — or equivalent — per week. Processing will include options of smoking and vacuum packaging meat and making sausage.
Smith and Mitchell have heard of Swoope farmer Charlie Drumheller’s plan to build a meat processing facility in the Shenandoah Valley that would process 120 head of cattle per day, but the AHAC has far less “industrial” goals.
“We would certainly like to see the business expand … but I don’t see it expanding to that size,” said Smith, who sees farmers being able to process and package meat individually for a time. After a few years, they may look into creating a Highland brand of beef.
“There’s a lot of niche markets that certainly would be capable of being served by this,” Smith said. Maybe not Walmart, but perhaps a small chain, like Ukrops. “The beauty about this facility is it’s gonna provide people with the opportunity to do that kind of marketing on her own.”
“This is almost a farm-model scale,” she said. “We’re trying to start out slowly and try to get under our belts what we can do well, and then add on parts to our business plan.”