Acre Station Meat Farm

Small Meat Processors August 27, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

Updated August 2013

 

Acre Station Meat Farm website

Basic information


Capacity per day: 80 hogs or 7 cattle. Added lamb and goats in 2013, processing about 20/mo. 
Hours/day of operation: 8
Days/week: 5
Weeks/year: 52
Species: Hogs, cattle, and wild game
Services: slaughter, processing, value-added processing (smoking, brining, curing, salting, grinding, sausage-making), packaging, labeling
Square feet: 7000 sf processing facility; 10,000 sf retail grocery
#/type of employees: 23 full time, 2 or 3 part time (9 in processing facility, 3 cashiers at grocery, 3 run on-site food stand, 3 in grocery meat department, 2 clean-up/janitorial, 5 office/management)
Annual revenues: $3 million for entire operation; ~$1 mil. for processing plant alone (wholesale business and fee-for-service processing)
Price of services: Hogs = $0.19/lb dressed wt kill fee, $0.84/lb for processing; Cattle = $100 kill fee, $0.94/lb on dressed wt for processing; Lamb/Goats = $49 kill fee, $1.49/lb on dressed wt for processing.
Operational costs: 35-40% of annual revenue i.e. $1,050,000 - $1,200,00 mil./yr (of $3 million gross for whole operation - costs of goods are much higher in retail vs. meat processing).
Retail on-site: yes
Wholesale: yes
Inspection: USDA (Talmadge-Aiken plant)
Certified organic: no
Certification agency: n/a
Custom work: Yes
Source verification on label: Yes

 

The market opportunity

Acre Station Meat Farm, located in Pinetown, in eastern North Carolina, is home to both a meat processing facility and a retail grocery store. The majority of the meat sold in the grocery store is processed at the facility on site, and is sold under an “Acre Station Meat Farm” label. To produce these products “slow grower” hogs and beef cattle are purchased from local farmers. Customers for the grocery store are local residents of Beaufort County who desire fresh, unique meat products at wholesale prices. To cater to this customer base the meat case is filled with standard cuts of pork and beef, as well as a number of items that are considered traditional “country” foods throughout rural North Carolina (fatback, pigs’ feet, etc.). The meat processing facility also supplies a set of local BBQ restaurants with whole and half pigs. Acre Station Meat Farm also sells a variety of pork products to restaurants in the North Carolina Outer Banks through a local restaurant supplier and distribution company.
 

 

In addition to producing products for their retail operation and select wholesale markets, the processing facility also does a significant amount of custom processing for local independent farmers. Acre Station Meat Farm is the only small meatpacker in North Carolina with the equipment and ability to produce a range of value-added products, such as bacon and ham. They have a strong reputation for the quality and consistency of their work. As a result, they have become the “go-to” processor for a number of farmers participating in direct markets. They also work closely with stakeholders in North Carolina who are establishing connections between local independent farmers and local retail markets. Acre Station Meat Farm is one of two small meatpackers currently participating in a pilot project that supplies the Southeast’s largest natural foods co-op with weekly deliveries of fresh, local beef and pork.

 

The people involved

Ronnie and Richard Huettmann

Ernest and Nancy Huettmann were the original owners and operators of Acre Station Meat Farm. Their two sons, Richard and Ronnie Huettmann, now run the family business.


 

History & Development

Ernest and Nancy Huettmann established Acre Station Meat Farm in 1978. Ernest Huettmann was born and raised in Germany, where he learned the butcher trade starting at age sixteen. At age nineteen Ernest came to the U.S. and landed a job with a meatpacking plant in New Jersey. He worked there for nineteen years. It was during this time that he met and married Nancy.

Nancy Huettmann had family in eastern North Carolina, so when a dairy farm came up for sale in the area the Huettmanns purchased it and relocated. After working as a butcher in a local grocery store for their first year in North Carolina, Ernest saw that there was a need for a meat processing plant to serve the region’s independent farmers. Thus the Acre Station Meat Farm processing plant was constructed on the Huettmanns’ land in 1978. The original plant included onsite retail, with part of the facility functioning as an “old-timey” butcher shop.

The current retail grocery store was not constructed until 1997. Over the years, as local independent farmers disappeared, retail sales gradually became more significant and now generate most of Acre Station Meat Farm’s revenues. This trend seems to be reversing itself in recent years, as business with independent farmers has been steadily increasing.


 

Funding sources

The Huettmanns financed the construction of both the meat processing facility and the retail grocery store with their own savings and traditional bank loans. Facility upgrades and equipment purchases over the years have been paid for with profits from the business.


 

Deciphering regulations and complying

Richard Huettmann, who manages the meat processing plant’s day-to-day operations, learned to process meat by working in the family business from a young age. Acre Station Meat Farm operates as a Talmadge-Aiken plant, inspected to USDA standards by state inspectors.

In order to develop the plant’s HACCP plans Richard attended a HACCP training held at North Carolina State University. He then worked on his own to customize templates provided during the training. Richard describes the process of understanding and implementing HACCP as “lots of trial and error.” He feels that you can never learn everything you need to know under HACCP since there is always something new. He described how requirements constantly change, most often in response to the latest national food safety scare. However, Richard does understand his facility’s flow and where to put critical control points, so he is able to adapt to changes as they come.
 

 

Acre Station has a good working relationship with their inspector, who is on-site during slaughter. Their staff work hard to properly manage sampling and recordkeeping protocols, which are regularly checked by their inspector when he is on-site. In general, Richard Huettemann has a positive attitude about regulations. He believes strongly in having a clean facility and solid recordkeeping, and he understands the importance of food safety measures both to his business and to public health. However he does feel there is perhaps a need to regulate small meatpackers and large facilities differently, as many requirements can seem like overkill for a small plant like his and yet be insufficient for bigger plants.


 

Plant design

Ernest Huettmann designed the Acre Station meat processing plant based on his experience working in other facilities. He did receive some assistance from the NC Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Meat and Poultry Inspection Division in developing blueprints for the plant. This helped to ensure that the facility would comply with regulations and still remain as affordable as possible.

At the time it was built, in 1978, the Acre Station meat processing facility was a $300,000 investment. Richard Huettmann estimates that building the same plant today would require approximately $2 million. The facility has a total of fifteen different rooms including a kill floor, a room devoted to further fabrication, various coolers and cold storage spaces, curing rooms, and rooms for dry-aging, smoking, brining, and other value-added processes.

Salt bins for country hams, fat back, and guanciale - Country Hams hanging in the drying room

 

image:Salt Bin.JPG image:Country Ham Room-2.JPG


 



 

Big Glitches and how they were solved

Acre Station hasn’t experienced many major glitches over the years. Ronnie and Richard Huettmann explained that the current economic crisis is the toughest time they’ve seen. Their retail sales have declined considerably.

One problem the Huettmanns anticipate is the gradual disappearance of their customer base. The core customer for their on-site retail grocery store is an older, rural consumer. These consumers’ health care providers are steering them away from the traditional “country” foods that Acre Station specializes in providing. And the younger generations in the area don’t tend to appreciate these same products. Richard and Ronnie recognize that their focus on providing these unique meat products will need to shift at some point. They are actively exploring opportunities to access new markets and to create a new niche for themselves.

 

Equipment required

Acre Station Meat Farm has a variety of equipment in their meat processing facility that makes them the only small meatpacker in North Carolina capable of producing a range of value-added products. Their plant includes a fully automated smoker, a grinder, a sausage stuffer, and equipment for brining, curing, and salting products. One piece of equipment on their kill floor that provides a notable competitive advantage is their scalder. Scalding their pigs immediately after slaughter allows Acre Station to leave the skin on as the carcasses are further fabricated. This makes for less waste and allows them to make cleaner cuts during fabrication. These are qualities highly appreciated by the independent farmers for whom they do custom processing.

Hog Dehairer and Scalder

 

 

Staff needed, how they were found and trained, and what they cost

Acre Station Meat Farm employs a total of 23 full time workers and 2 to 3 part time workers. Nine of those individuals work in the meat processing facility. Others work in either the retail grocery store or in administrative jobs. Richard and Ronnie Huettmann feel fortunate to have a set of skilled workers they can count on to do a good job. Over the years they have learned that it can be hard to find people who take pride in their work. The Huettmanns find that it is important to pay people well and to make them feel appreciated. They understand how critical it is to their operation to have a group of core employees that they can depend on.

For the meat processing facility to operate smoothly, Richard finds that he needs a team of at least 3 skilled workers. Richard himself is one of those workers. Another is a team member who has been with them for more than 25 years. The third is a cutter who is relatively new to their team, but who had prior training working as a “block butcher” for Food Lion, a regional grocery chain. Most of the other staff that work in the meat processing facility are relatively unskilled workers. Richard described them as coming through the facility “on a revolving door.” Most only stick around for 8 months or so, although their current team of workers has been with them for about a year and a half.

All new employees of the meat processing facility are started off doing menial tasks. Once they demonstrate they can work hard and are eager to learn they are moved into more skilled jobs via on-the-job training. Richard described their approach to training employees as an apprenticeship type model – it is a work in progress, happening on-site everyday.

Pay rates for Acre Station employees are variable. New unskilled hires are started off at minimum wage, currently $7.25/hr in NC. Experienced cutters are paid $10-12/hr. Managers are paid a salary equivalent to $15-18/hr. Benefits provided include 4 paid holidays per year, 5 sick days per year, 1 week paid vacation per year, and 2 weeks paid vacation per year after 10 years. Acre Station also pays 50% of the cost of health insurance for their employees.

 

Future Plans

In order to start diversifying the range of products available at their retail grocery store, the Huettmanns would like to start offering cooked, ready-to-eat products. They see a growing market for such items, with more and more of their local customers looking for the ability to come in to their store and pick up a prepared supper.

As for their meat processing plant, the Huettmanns are interested in new product development. They would like to be able to offer their clients new value-added products, such as hot dogs. In addition, they are interested in continuing to increase the percentage of their revenues that are generated by fee-for-service work.

As of August 2013, Acre Station is still working towards adding more cooked, ready-to-eat products.  They are collaborating with NC Choices on a SARE Grant proposal to help finance the equipment needed- another smokehouse and a rollstock machine.  



 

Lessons Learned

Richard and Ronnie Huettmann identify three primary lessons learned that have contributed to their success: 1) “listen to your customer, no matter who they are”; 2) “put out the best product you can”; and 3) “ it is important to have good people working with you.”

The Huettemanns also feel that being both a retailer and a processor provides them a competitive advantage – their perspective is broader than that of many processors, and allows them insight into what retailers (potential customers) are looking for in a business relationship.

 


 

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USDA / NIFA

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.