New kid on the block

by Steve Krut
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Open house at Alleghany Meats
Alleghany Meats does its part to preserve local farming and agriculture in northwestern Virginia. (Photo: The Highland Center)

They could be called the new kid on the block. Certainly, not as polished or well- known as others, but make no mistake about it, in less than three years Alleghany Meats of Monterey, Va., has arrived and is already fulfilling the vision of its founders.

This is not a story about a meat-processing company with all the bells and whistles, the latest equipment and vast years of experience. It’s the tale of a facility established to help local agriculture survive and flourish.

Alleghany Meats just opened its doors on April 5, 2012. In an era when most of the successful meat operations are those that have persevered and refined their operations and markets through many generations, Alleghany Meats represents an opportunity to celebrate a genuine back-to-basics processing service.

The problem for many livestock producers in the Northwestern area of Virginia was a lack of processing facilities for their animals. Without that element, those who raised cattle, hogs, goats and sheep were left to fend for themselves. Large packing houses were not offering them the prices they needed to truck their animals great distances. Worse yet, those who raised livestock for their own consumption had to slaughter and cut up the animals in makeshift facilities that afforded little in the way of sanitation or food safety.

In 2005, a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission was matched by funds from the Highland-Bath Office of Virginia Cooperative Extension, The Highland Center and local agricultural producer associations and farmers, and within a year a feasibility study showed a sufficient number of animals in the region to warrant a market analysis for a slaughter facility. This was at a time when the number of slaughter facilities had dwindled to about one-third of the total operating 15 years earlier.

“It all started with that study,” explains Josh Moyers, who came on board as operations manager of Alleghany Meats in January of this year. Josh had some experience as a farm butcher and worked at the new enterprise for three years as a manager’s assistant.

“There were around 90 shareholders who put up about $1 million to build the plant,” he notes. “Most of them were farmers and livestock producers who felt such an operation could help them get a better grip on their future in agriculture.” Alleghany Meats also secured a USDA loan making it a private/government venture.

Pushing for profit
 

A bison in a chute at Alleghany Meats
Plant capabilities go beyond pork and beef. Alleghany Meats also processes bison, lamb, goat and yak.

Located on a six-acre tract near Forks of the Water, Alleghany Meats is not only playing its part to help save local farming and agriculture, but is designed to make a profit.

“We are obtaining inspection services from the Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and are slaughtering two or three days a week,” Josh continues. “We are getting livestock from West Virginia, Southern Virginia and even from North Carolina. In a word, we have greatly surpassed our original expectations.

“The largest percentage of those using our facility are people who raised their own animals and fill their home freezers with the meat,” he says. “But now we have about 35 to 40 percent of our volume in customers who raise their herds and want to market meat from those animals under their own private-label on a commercial basis.”

He adds that in addition to beef and pork, the 3,500-sq.-ft. plant also processes bison, lamb, goat and yak.

With seven employees, Alleghany Meats has rapidly learned the key elements of customer education and pricing. The business operates as a limited liability corporation and is run by a seven-member board.

“We still get customers who think that if they bring in a 1,000-lb. animal, they should get 1,000 lbs. of finished meat,” Josh reflects. “We have to continuously keep them informed about the loss of bones, blood, offal and hides. We go out of our way to explain what they will receive, even how there will be shrinkage in the cooler as the carcass is cooled and aged.”

He adds that it took some time to understand how to price their services and believes they are rounding the corner in understanding how to run the business. He offers the story of one customer who now drives his animals past five other slaughter plants to bring them to Alleghany Meats.

The learning curve has been quick at the company, and not just in transitioning from cheap pricing to service fees that return a profit. They’ve brought on a HACCP coordinator, Ruth Chappelle, and are looking at a small 10- by-15-ft. plant addition for smoked product.

More than slaughtering services

Meat ready for the smoker at Alleghany Meats
A rack of sausage is loaded and ready for the smoker.

In addition to custom slaughter and cutting and wrapping services, the firm is producing both fresh and smoked sausage and bratwurst and offers customers a large-diameter cased summer sausage, in addition to bacon and ham.

Josh feels the 300-lb. smoker they recently brought on-line has added greater service capability for their customers. They’ve also purchased a tumbler to boost the quality of their finished products.

Not yet flush with a full marketing budget, Alleghany Meats does well in promoting its services through participation in local radio shows. It also has grown in its marketing power through its website, alleghanymeats.com.

Josh says he is extremely proud of how far the fledgling business has come, but remains quite candid about how much they have to learn.

“We keep trying until we understand things and move to get them right,” he adds. “The thing that helps the most is when we get feedback from our customers about what they like and don’t like. Without that information, we’re left to doing a lot of guessing. Listening and understanding is maybe the best thing we can do to learn. It has taught us not to just jump into something until we look at it from all the angles possible.”

He adds that the possibility of game processing could be in the cards for the company, but says they will not go that route until they fully understand how to make it self-sufficient and profitable.

Like we said earlier, the story of Alleghany Meats is not about any fancy bells and whistles. It is just one of a group that saw a need and has taken some measured steps to fulfill it. Reminds one of how the small meat-processing industry really began in America.

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