Alachua County considers plan to partner with Newberry to establish new meat processing center

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Alachua County is considering plans to partner with the City of Newberry to construct a new meat processing facility that will serve the entire county and potentially beyond. 

Alachua County officials want to reorganize the county’s food supply lines to be more locally based and independent by constructing the meat processing center in Newberry. Plans for the new facility originate from concerns about the nationwide supply chain issues that have occurred since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative, which has not yet been officially approved, is led by Alachua County Commissioner Anna Prizzia, who represents the county’s 3rd District and serves as the Alachua County Commission’s vice chair. 

Prizzia is a longtime advocate of food access and sustainability efforts, having worked closely with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for years. Some of Prizzia’s previous work includes serving as the statewide coordinator for the Florida Farm to School Program from 2012 until 2014 and serving as the president of the Working Food nonprofit from 2012 until 2020, according to the Alachua County Commission’s website.

Prizzia said she plans to use the proposed meat processing center to strengthen and improve local food supply lines, support local ranchers and train Florida’s next generation of agricultural specialists. 

The facility will be a unique project. Unlike other meat processing facilities in the state, this facility will be privately operated but publicly owned. Prizzia said she hopes this project will lead to the opening of similarly modeled meat processors in the future.

“The goal is for us to build the infrastructure and hopefully have a public-private partnership for the operation,” Prizzia said in a phone interview. “It would be a contract with the county for operation of the facility.” 

Prizzia said the county would put out a request for proposals that would list what the county was looking for in an operator. Potential operators would then respond with proposals with how they would see themselves operating the facility, and the county would begin to negotiate a contract with them after deciding on the best candidate.

“We want that private operator to be able to make revenue, to make money and pay themselves and pay their bills and have it be a solvent and sustainable operation,” Prizzia said. “The goal is to stimulate economic development and to help provide more local food processing, so we can create a more resilient local food system.”

Alachua County currently does not have a particular operator in mind, Prizzia said.

Local rancher Alan Hitchcock owns about 2,500 acres of land and about 500 head of cattle. Hitchcock said he is incredibly supportive of the project, citing its ability to aid smaller local ranchers. 

“It’ll be monumental for smaller ranchers because the larger ranches have the capabilities of shipping more and putting loads together,” Hitchcock said. “Whereas for a smaller operation, this will open up so many doors for them and give them the opportunity to build retail relationships that can help them make their farms more sustainable.”

Prizzia said the facility will be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Hitchcock says is crucial for ranchers to build these retail relationships.

“You cannot sell at retail if you’re not being processed at a USDA-inspected plant,” Hitchcock said. “It just opens up a lot of new markets and possibilities for ranchers.”

Hitchcock said he also hopes the new facility will help livestock owners circumvent the monthslong backup at nearby private meat processors.

“There are a few local processors in this area,” Hitchcock said. “Right now, the research has shown us that it’s six months out to even get an appointment to get an animal processed, so there’s a huge demand.”

Prizzia spoke at a meeting of members of the Florida Farm Bureau from across north central Florida, including Vice President Steve Johnson, in the City of Alachua on Monday where she outlined her plan for the project. Hitchcock, a member of the Alachua County Farm Bureau, attended as Prizzia’s guest and spoke on her behalf before the Bureau members board prior to Prizzia’s presentation.

Prizzia said at the meeting that the facility will be relatively small and is expected to employ about eight-to-15 workers and process about 25 head of livestock per day. The facility will process cattle, goats, sheep and hogs. No white meat or venison will be processed at the facility. Livestock owners will retain ownership of the processed meat and will be able to sell their product at retail and wholesale.

Prizzia spoke in a phone interview about the facility’s local focus.

“It doesn’t mean to say that the facility couldn’t serve farmers from other parts of the state, but the focus and the primary drive is Alachua County and the region surrounding Alachua County,” Prizzia said.

Prizzia said ranchers who use the facility will be able to sell their processed product wherever they want, not just to Alachua County residents and retailers. 

Prizzia, a longtime supporter of agricultural education opportunities, said she plans to have students from the University of Florida and Santa Fe College participate at the facility as part of their education. Prizzia said she sees student-driven research as a large part of the facility’s mission.

“We want this facility to be a research center where scientists from IFAS and other institutions can collaborate to look at ways that we can have sort of state-of-the-art meat processing facilities that reduce water, reduce waste, reduce energy and develop new value-added products from things that would have been considered waste,” Prizzia said.

Prizzia said her goal is to create a qualified and trained workforce in Florida for meat sciences, which has a large and growing demand.

Prizzia’s team has begun an analysis of the facility’s expected economic impact on the county, which will be completed soon.

The project is expected to cost about $5 million, half of which is already accounted for through funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The remaining $2.5 million needs to be identified. Prizzia said the county will be seeking state and local grants. The facility’s construction timeline will be determined by funding. Prizzia said she aims to have it completed by the end of 2026, by which time the county must spend its federal grants.

The Alachua County Commission has set aside the aforementioned $2.5 million federal funds currently in its possession for local food initiatives but has not yet officially voted to use the funds specifically for the proposed meat processing center. Prizzia said the vote is expected to come in October. The finer details of the initiative are still being discussed by county officials.

Prizzia is working closely with Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe to ensure the project’s success. 

Since the operation of the meat processing center will require extensive wastewater management, the facility will be built alongside Newberry’s new Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on the 92 acres of land purchased by the city late last year for about $1.1 million. The regional wastewater facility will be able to accommodate the meat processing center’s wastewater.

Marlowe said in a phone interview that the wastewater facility is expected to take up about 45 acres while the meat processing facility is expected to take up about 10 acres. The wastewater facility, which is still in the planning stage, is expected to cost $40 million. 

Marlowe aims to complete the wastewater facility by 2025. The city’s permit expires in 2026. Marlowe said no contractor has yet been selected, and the city doesn’t have any particular contractor in mind.

Marlowe said Newberry is committed to assisting in the success of the meat processing center, and Newberry and Alachua County are still determining who will be responsible for certain parts of the proposed partnership.

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This is a breaking news story. Check back for further developments. Contact WUFT News by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org

 

About Silas Morgan

Silas is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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