FPL Food LLC announced in October that it had secured financing to expand its beef harvest and processing facilities in Augusta, Ga. The project is another piece of François Léger’s vision for the company he founded – to grow the business as a leading vertically integrated beef processor in the southeastern United States.

Working as part of a team to fulfill this vision has kept Jim Rogers, president of FPL, very busy during the 15-plus months since he joined the business.

“I came here because of what [Léger] was wanting to build out and grow this company into,” Rogers said. “We’re starting to realize that vision – of becoming a branded beef company focused on high-quality Angus, Wagyu and Akaushi beef and cattle. It’s unique if you look at what he built already, and what I’m part of now and what we’re part of together going forward in this vertically integrated supply system that really no one else has of this type of capacity; from the genetics to the finished goods.”

But driving growth has not been without challenges – and not all of those challenges were due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We’re operating a beef company and trying to grow a beef company in a chicken part of the world,” Rogers said. “Finding producer partners that will want to work with us on the live side has been a challenge, but that’s not a surprise. I think we knew we would find that because people aren’t feeding cattle in Georgia; people aren’t feeding cattle in the Southeast for the most part.

“But on the other hand, there’s a lot of good cattle producers in the Southeast,” he added. “There’s a lot of good feeder calves that are born in the Southeast, but then they get finished and fed in the Midwest. So, there’s a base of live cattle knowledge. We’re trying to build that network of partners – guys that want to finish cattle in the Southeast.”

Measured growth

Over a period of 16 years, FPL has grown to four facilities in Georgia and South Carolina from two plants in Augusta. FPL currently operates a ground beef facility in Thomasville, Ga.; Châtel Farms cattle feeding operation in Reidsville, Ga.; and Châtel Ankony purebred Black Angus production in Midville, Ga. FPL also manages a steak cutting operation in Thomasville that is owned by Walmart Inc.

The most-recent chapter of the FPL Food growth story is a rebuild of the Augusta harvest and fabrication facility. Company leadership expects the finished multi-phase project to yield needed capacity to meet growing demand for its vertically integrated beef brands – Châtel Farms, True To Nature and Southern River Farms Natural Beef. The initial phase of the expansion is scheduled for completion in September 2021. FPL expects to process up to 2,500 Black Angus and Akaushi fed cattle per week at the renovated plant.

Additional phases of the expansion will be completed within the next three years, and weekly throughput will increase to more than 5,000 head. FPL said these numbers will supplement the company’s current cow and bull processing and elevate total production to more than 10,000 head per week.

“We’re building out a completely vertically integrated supply and finished goods operation,” Rogers said. “Starting with the genetics, we have a herd of Black Angus cattle – cows and bulls, and Ankony genetics. So, starting with the genetics all the way through the finished goods, we have a further-processing facility in Thomasville, Ga., that cuts steaks and does ground beef. So, we can take a calf that is based off our own genetics, raise that animal, finish that animal, process/harvest the animal at our harvesting plant; send the beef to our Thomasville facility and make a steak out of it and sell that steak to a retailer or a foodservice operator, and we control everything about it.”

In the planning stages, Rogers and the FPL team reassessed the parts of the processing facility that comprised operations and identified that the hot-box, the carcass cooler, posed a hurdle to growth. Rogers said expansion of the hot box is in the plan so the company can implement a two-shift processing operation.

The fabrication floor needs to be expanded and modified as well to allow processing of more fed cattle, he added. FPL will be adding technology that is new to the company but familiar to the industry. The company has not shied away from advances in technology or best practices – FPL was the first slaughtering facility in the United States to implement remote video auditing at its plant in Augusta, to ensure animal-welfare standards were being met. The company also adopted DNA traceability technology as a food safety measure.

Before the pandemic, a team from FPL traveled abroad to visit meat processors in Europe, New Zealand and other countries “…to look at what they’re doing and try to get best practices from other operations in other countries,” Rogers said.

COVID-19 considerations

The fact that FPL is gearing up for growth during a global pandemic hasn’t stifled the company’s ability to turn previous lessons learned into actionable strategies.

“We are taking what we learned in the last six months and we’ll be incorporating that into any new facility, any new designs that we have,” Rogers said. “The biggest is social distancing – not only in the production area but in all of the employee welfare areas – anywhere people gather.

“Facilities are one part of it for sure, but also changing practices – instead of sending the whole floor to break we’re rotating lines on break. So, we’re limiting the number of folks that we have in the break room at a time. Facilities are one thing, but a different mindset of how you run the operation is another thing as well.”

The pandemic also has caused the FPL team to consider incorporating automation into the expansion as a means of enhancing worker safety while streamlining operations.

FPL Food is one of the largest employers in Augusta and Thomasville, with more than 1,400 employees. People are so integral to the successful and safe operation of a processing facility, that FPL started the hiring process almost a year out from when the project was expected to be completed. Taking such a big head start on hiring has given the company ample time to find and train workers for the second shift – especially in some of the heavy skill positions.

“Along those lines, we’re looking at an off-site facility where we’ll train the key heavy skilled type jobs well before the B shift startup so that when we’re ready to start the B shift,” Rogers said, “those skilled positions are trained, ready to go and we’re ready to push the button and start that operation with trained folks.”

FPL’s main slaughter plant is one of two processing facilities in Georgia.

Serious about sustainability

Expanding the processing business also involves controlling the company’s carbon footprint. To maintain its standards for sustainability, FPL has engaged a variety of practices to responsibly manage waste and the use of resources like energy and water, as well as a number of other sustainability initiatives under consideration.

At the cattle feeding operation FPL composts manure. The grain for the cattle comes from a company owned farm nearby or from local farmers within 50 miles of the facility so that the company isn’t trucking grain across the country, Rogers said. Calves are sourced in the Southeast where FPL is based, and the animals are located near the feeding operation. The feeding operation is about two hours from the processing plant; so, finished cattle aren’t shipped across the country.

“We take material from our harvest facility and, instead of putting that in a landfill, we bring that to our farm in Reidsville and compost that, and then,” Rogers said, “it goes back on the fields for our grain that we grow, or silage, or whatever the crops are that we’re growing down there.

“So, we’re trying to look at not just cattle feeding and cattle processing. We’re really focused on how we impact the environment. We believe we are very good stewards of the land and the animals. We understand that it’s the land and the cattle that provide all of us with our livelihoods and give 1,400 people a job every day. It’s very important to us.”

Rogers said the expansion and resulting upgrades will enable the company to reduce water usage by two-thirds from current levels.

At the company’s rendering facility, some of the energy generated is used to heat water, but a rebuilt rendering facility will use almost 100% of that energy to drive hot water heating capabilities while reducing natural gas consumption.

“And then, there’s anaerobic digesters to put in the facility that will eliminate most, if not all of, our landfill products as well as create methane gas which we can then capture and create heat,” Rogers continued. “All of those projects are on the table; we’re looking at all of them to figure out how we can reduce our energy usage.

“Obviously, it makes sense from a cost standpoint; but in this day and age, with what we know now about the environment and climate, it’s the right thing to be doing.”