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A Passion for Quality Meat

By Samm Simpson

In 2007 Amanda Carter discovered the underbelly of the industrial food system after she and her husband, Will, drove from North Carolina to Washington state in their newly converted grease-powered panel truck.

Carter wrote a research paper on yellow grease, replete with details on roadkill, chicken carcasses and scraps being recycled into animal feed. She decided her family would never eat commercially fed animal protein again.

“We’d already eliminated trans fats, HFCS, hydrogenated oils, Red #40 and artificial flavors, so we decided we’d raise our own meat.”

The Carters experimented with broilers and rabbits and practiced humane backyard processing while introducing Simon and Alice, their first two children, to farm life. Carter developed a feed business, driving 800-mile round-trips to buy and supply non-GMO feed for her 150 customers. She crafted a newsletter with an eye to animal handling, health and ever-changing government regulations.

Carter family
Alice and Simon Carter (front) with Lucy, Amanda, Matilda and Will Carter on their farm in North Carolina.

Will, who had honed his construction skills since age 12, helped homeschool the children and began his journey into animal husbandry. When the Carters returned to North Carolina in February 2011, Amanda discovered the Pilot Plant Project and offered to do an internship. To demonstrate that she meant business, she produced research papers on waste stream and managing inputs. These were delivered to project manager Smithson Mills at the North Carolina Meat Conference in March 2011, and her internship began shortly after.

At this juncture, Will didn’t know that he and his children would eventually become the largest pastured poultry producers in western North Carolina. And while Amanda didn’t know that she’d be managing the processing plant that her family, and over 300 farmers from six states utilize, she had an inkling that just maybe, she could.

In June 2012 Amanda was on maternity leave with their third child, Matilda. She received an emergency call to come help redo the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan).

“I sat down with a USDA inspector, a poultry scientist and Smithson to fix what was being used. I had five days to do it.” The three-page document written primarily for rabbits was expanded to 12 pages and included more species. Amanda was offered the management position.

“I took an aggressive approach to both production and marketing development with our farmers. Our job is not to tell [farmers] what they need, it is to take what they are doing and make it better.”

Carter, with family in tow, travels to client farms. She offers technical assistance on economies of scale, management and feeding practices, humane transport, handling and more. She’s even been known to tell farmers that they ought not raise birds, and they respect her for it. She also plays matchmaker, receiving calls from restaurants, institutional buyers or other farmers looking to purchase a consistent high-quality poultry product.

Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter's Spirit Level Farm.
Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter’s Spirit Level Farm.

“I see everybody’s bird with their feathers off, so I know what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t just a processing house, it’s an education house. We have a crucial piece of a much larger change in the food system, and we directly impact dozens of businesses annually. If we weren’t here, [some] farmers could not get into high-end restaurants. I tell people with confidence that if you have a USDA-inspected chicken at farmers’ markets from Charlottesville, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia, and from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Raleigh, North Carolina, it probably came though my plant.”

Kenneth and Dani Strader own Meadows Family Farm in Julian, North Carolina. The facility they had used to process their turkeys suddenly shut down. It was the week before Thanksgiving, so Dani called Amanda in a panic. “She said she’d be delighted to do our 186 pre-ordered turkeys. They did an excellent job.”

Word of mouth from satisfied farmers continues to propel the numbers of chickens, turkeys, ducks, quail, rabbits and geese being processed: 31,000 in 2012 to approximately 82,000 in 2015. The condemn rate is 2 vs. 25 percent in industrial facilities.

Staff members are expected to learn three jobs. Jerad Buckley is the quality assurance manager. He handles USDA paperwork, makes sure the lots are marked and more. “Our packaging room is small, you have to have eyes in the back of your head. Farmer Joe doesn’t want Farmer Ted’s bird. In three and a half years, that hasn’t happened.”

The Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina
A typical afternoon at the Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina.

Jesse Burton, III is the killer. He averages 1,000 birds per day. Despite moving at lightning speed, he tenderly cups his hand around each and every bird’s head to place the stunner, ensuring the animal will feel no pain.

“I do have a heart,” He confided. “They don’t feel a thing.”

Amanda takes the Animal Welfare Approved label seriously. “I want little homeschool children who bring me their chickens with their moms to know we’re doing the best we can.”

The Taylor-Wright Farm Company is a sixth-generation farm in Broadnax, Virginia. Allen Wright and wife, Ann Taylor Wright, drive 400 miles one way.

“We were doing 100 birds, but now we do 1,500 because we outsource the processing. It’s increased our production and our profit. Now I can offer a boneless skinless breast and different cuts to my customers that they could only get at a grocery store.” This economy of scale discussion is one that Amanda relishes.

“You reach a volume where your business becomes economically viable, but you can’t find help to process on farm; that’s when you come to me.”

Will also takes that message to heart, along with Temple Grandin’s call for farmers big and small to work together. Those family farm visits sparked Will’s construction and design background. He came up with a method to significantly increase his own pastured poultry numbers.

Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.
Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.

“I spent the same amount of time raising 550 birds as I am now raising 6,000.” How? He’s invented a larger, extremely efficient multi-tasking mobile unit. A patent is in the works. Will is teaming up with farmers to buy/lease his equipment, or partner to raise birds. He projects an increase to 10,000 pastured poultry broilers in 2016. The children are all on board.

Amanda’s team works two shifts. Mornings are for killing; afternoons are for cutting and packaging. Non-GMO food grade acids are used for their antimicrobial dip, performed briefly just before refrigeration. An efficient use of chilled storage capacity and farmer’s pick up times are in constant motion. In between, there’s cleaning, scrubbing and disinfecting. They use organic compliant cleaning and processing chemicals; a lye-based sodium hypochlorite foaming cleaner, a quaternary sanitizer and peracetic acid for interval sanitization.

“I discovered a need for sheep and goat processing and grocery stores and restaurants that wanted whole hog work,” said Amanda. “So, I thought ‘let’s put in a line for sheep, goats and hogs to 350 pounds.’ We’ll break them into primals, no chops or sausage, but focus on whole animals.”

She received a $75,000 grant and Will helped design the line.

“By spring of 2016, I want to be able to put a whole hog in the cooler in 20 minutes.” She shared these projections while simultaneously instructing a farmer to properly unload his broilers. Five-month old Lucy, the Carter’s fourth child, was sound asleep and tucked into an Ergo on her mother’s chest. Carter’s commitment to her family, her employees, her farmers and the food supply is also nestled up there just as close, right next to her heart.

For more information on the Foothills Pilot Plant visit foothillspilotplant.com, email info@foothillspilotplant.com or call 828-803-2717.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.