WILLIS — The dream of two local farmers could change the lives of numerous others in the county in the coming years through the opening of a new custom exempt meat processing facility before the end of the year.
The idea behind Firehouse Farms has been festering for about five years now, owners Jody and Madeline Akers say, building up to the opening of a new custom exempt meat processing facility in Floyd in late-October or early-November, if all continues going to plan.
As pork and beef farmers themselves, Madeline said in July, the Akers realize it’s important that meat comes from livestock that is well cared for during every step in the process.
“The eating local movement took off at the perfect time, and I’m hoping that it continues because it's so important to know what we are eating as a society,” Madeline said. “I do really believe that the only way to have a quality meat industry is to start focusing on small farms and small businesses (that) can focus on both the quality of life and the quality of the product because those two things go hand in hand.”
The couple explained in August at least the first year of Firehouse Farms will consist mostly of working with Floyd farmers, selling their own livestock for processing in halves, quarters and wholes, and preparing to eventually morph into a USDA-inspected facility to support the local agriculture-based economy in Floyd for generations to come.
Jody emphasized the first step is to get the facility “up, running and sustainable” before focusing on Firehouse Farms’ next levels of certification.
Slowed by the pandemic and inflated material costs, as of the end of August, the structure that will become Firehouse Farms’ custom exempt meat processing facility consisted of about 2,000 concrete blocks placed by the Akers’ own hands on their property in Willis.
Custom exempt meat facilities slaughter, butcher, package and freeze animal products for livestock farmers to pick up for their own use. According to online booking tools Sept. 9, appointments at other facilities in southwest Virginia are scheduled as far as five months out.
Floyd County agriculture largely revolves around cattle and beef sales, and has since the county was formed, ranking No. 15 in Virginia for cattle and calf sales in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture, and in the top 35% nationwide.
Floyd County Cooperative Extension Agent Jon Vest said, “a new local processing facility will cut down on the overall transportation costs and potentially improve scheduling limits that are in place to accommodate producers.”
He explained Floyd farmers often have to travel out of county, and in some cases out of the state, to have products processed, and schedule well in advance for harvests.
“The tendency for meat processing to be concentrated during certain periods of the year is influenced by the overall production of these animals in spring and fall herds,” Vest explained. “Calving, rearing and grass feeding, and finally finishing beef in preparation for processing, tends to group the overall volume of calves awaiting processing.” He noted some religious holidays also impact the “volume/flow of livestock.”
USDA-inspected processing is in even higher demand, with few local options and even longer waitlists than custom exempt facilities, which can be as long as five months out as of Sept. 9, according to online booking tools at local facilities.
Vest noted the closest USDA facility frequented by Floyd farmers is in Rich Creek, more than an hour away from the Town of Floyd.
Only meat processed at a USDA-inspected facility or a state-inspected facility (FSIS) can be sold in a retail environment, the main reason the additional certification appeals to the Akers.
Madeline explained last month participating in the annual Floyd C4 Business Development Series, hosted by county officials, prepared her for some of the finer details and common obstacles encountered when building a business from the ground up.
A GoFundMe page that initially started to raise funds for the facility and construction during the pandemic now serves as a record of the Akers’ progress since breaking ground two months ago, in June.
“Since we own the land we are building on and will be running this ourselves, we have a very low overhead (cost) and will be able to pass along those savings to the community, so they can afford to eat healthy and properly like everyone should be able to,” the Akers state in a post on the page.
For now, the Akers said at the beginning of September, they’re focusing on completing the necessary paperwork to establish Firehouse Farms LLC and drying in the building.
Madeline still regularly updates the page with details and progress reports, and community members can find the photos and updates at www.gofundme.com/f/family-farm-and-usda-processing-plant.