In September 2020, Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler announced the creation of the Increasing Meat Production Efficiency and Capacity (IMPEC) grant program, administered by the NCDA&CS. The $20.25 million grant program aims to strengthen the meat supply chain and ensure consumers have adequate sources of protein.
A year ago, the average shopper may not have thought twice about the food supply chain, but like so many things in 2020 that soon changed as grocery stores began to run out of meat.
“Empty shelves made us aware that we had a problem,” said Joe Hampton, an agriculture program specialist with the department. Hampton co-leads the department’s Increasing Meat Production Efficiency and Capacity (IMPEC) grant program.
COVID-19 shed light on the complexity of our nation’s food supply, and how interconnected and fragile of a system it could be. The pandemic restricted traditional supply chains. As a result, more pressure was put on N.C. processors to fulfill the demand usually handled by larger operations in the Midwest. Waitlists grew to a year or more. A backlog ensued, and it became nearly impossible to get more meat processed in the state.
One of the biggest challenges facing local meat processors was outdated technology. Many smaller operations had technology that was 40-50 years old, and did not have the financial resources to upgrade to more modern equipment. Through the IMPEC grants, meat and seafood processors will now be able to improve their production capacity and increase efficiencies to better serve North Carolina farmers and fishermen across the state. For some, the improvements could double their production capacity.
The grant funds provide a cash infusion, but are not a handout. All applicants paid for at least one-third of their project’s cost. In many cases, the companies contributed even more. Hampton said it is important for the businesses to be a part of the solution, “We want them to stay economically viable for the future.”
A Lot of Good, But Not a Lot of Time
IMPEC has been a quick relief for many processors, but it came with a short turnaround time for the department. With less than three months to contact companies, receive applications, verify paperwork and award funding, the department had to work quickly.
A cross-functional team of over a dozen employees was assembled to assist with administering the grant. Joe Hampton is quick to point out that’s in addition to the employees’ regular duties and responsibilities. No funds were used for administrative purposes. The department covered those expenses in order to ensure that the entire $20.25 million in funding was allocated to local processors.
The team is working tirelessly to ensure that all reimbursements are issued before the December 30 deadline. On December 15, more than half of the 57 grants had been paid out. The rest are on schedule to be completed by the deadline. Hampton says the impact of IMPEC should be noticeable early in 2021.
“In 60-90 days, we will see significant increases in North Carolina production,” he said.
We Asked “How Can We Help?”
The key to the program’s success, according to Hampton, is that each grant is tailored for each applicant. “They know more about their operation than we do,” said Hampton. “We didn’t tell them the solution. We asked them how can we help, and they told us what they needed.”
Custom Quality Packers, a pork processing facility in Sims, will use funding to purchase an automated rail system, cooler upgrades and other equipment. In 2019, the operation processed about 55,000 hogs from 12 area farms. With the new additions, the company expects to see a 20-percent increase in capacity and sales for 2021.
For Middle Sound Mariculture in Wilmington, IMPEC grant funding has already had an impact on the oyster farm’s capacity and ability to expand into new markets. The company used funds to help purchase a new oyster tumbler and a mobile refrigeration unit. Owner James Hargrove said the refrigeration unit is a “game changer,” allowing the company to expand its capacity from 8,000 oysters to more than 20,000.
Having a mobile unit also opens up new markets for the four-year-old company. Hargrove hopes to soon expand north into Washington, D.C., and south into major cities such as Charleston and Savannah. “We were looking at negative numbers earlier this year,” he said. “Without this grant, we would have been much worse off.”