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Struggling cattle farmers await new auction house

If all goes according to plan, a new regional livestock market will open in Canton by late May to more than 3,000 happy cattle farmers from Western North Carolina.

The venue will again provide a stable market to help livestock from WNC find their way into the global marketplace.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our district,” said John Queen, a Haywood County cattleman who will operate the new market. “It’ll once again bring this great agricultural county back to life.”

Cattle farmers have struggled to cope after the primary auction house serving the region shut its doors six years ago in Asheville. Traveling to markets in Tennessee, northern Georgia and eastern North Carolina has taken a big bite out of producers’ profits.

Queen recalled the days when there were not one, but five cattle markets in Western North Carolina.

“We’ve lost all that,” said Queen. “All of our farmers have to travel out of state.”

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Some small cattlemen, already stretching to make ends meet, decided to leave the business.

Western North Carolina Communities, which is leading the effort, has landed $2.1 million of its $3 million target.

The $2.1 million already secured is enough to build an operable market, but nonessential components, like a compost area for manure, landscaping and a portion of parking, will be delayed until more money can be raised.

WNC Communities hopes to break ground on the project some time in February.

According to L.T. Ward, vice-president of WNC Communities, the recession is actually working in the livestock market’s favor.

“We are on a low budget,” said Ward. “We’ve been asking for the contractors to provide more than they normally would for the dollars.”

As part of the project, cattle farmers will not only secure a local livestock market, but they will also receive training from the state Beef Quality Assurance program to create a higher-quality product — which will help them fetch better prices.

With the state quality assurance program and lower freight costs, WNC cattle farmers would score $25 to $45 more per head by fall, which is peak selling season.

The proposed auction house will be located near exit 33 off Interstate 40 near Canton. It will eventually accommodate 1,100 head. Initially, it will accommodate around 700.

Producers will have a 44,500-square-foot covered area, where they can parade their cattle in an 8,000-square-foot heated sales arena, office and meeting room and queue them up in a 36,500-square-feet open space “barn” equipped with holding pens. While cattle will be the primary commodity, pigs, goats and sheep will be auctioned as well.

WNC Communities is fairly confident it’ll receive more grant money to complete the last phase. They hope to start construction in July and present a complete livestock market by this September.

Jerry Roberts, a cattle farmer leading the project, said the geographic location off I-40 in Haywood, yet close to the Buncombe county line, will have a positive regional impact.

Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.

“I appreciate the fact that we’ve got it here,” said Gavin Brown, chair of the Haywood Economic Development Commission and mayor of Waynesville.

The Southeast Livestock Exchange, which owns a large cattle lot in Waynesville, will operate the new market. After being in the cattle marketing business for 30 years, Queen has gained plenty of experience. He said there’s always been good demand for cattle from Western North Carolina.

“We hope to rebuild the demand that we had at one point in time,” said Queen. “And we know that can happen.”

Ed Johnson, who runs a small-scale livestock market in Canton, was invited to apply to become the new market’s operator. Johnson chose not to bid due to the proposed market’s large size.

“He felt the expectations were greater,” said Ward, adding that WNC Communities maintains an open dialogue with Johnson and considers his market “friendly competition.”

Johnson has criticized efforts to create a new market instead of building on his small-scale operation. Johnson started up his auction house in 2008 to fill the void faced by cattle farmers. But according to Ward, the feasibility study for the larger market was already underway when Johnson made his move.

WNC Communities is waiting on a re-use permit from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the site, a former landfill owned by International Paper.

The landfill will also be used by the Town of Canton for a youth athletic field.

While Ward maintains the entire project is farmer-driven, WNC Communities have had their work cut out for them, applying for funding from five different organizations, each with their own guidelines.


Paying for a new livestock market

The lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s resulted in a financial settlement with states. North Carolina dedicated 25 percent of its $4.6 billion piece of the pie to the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund to help former tobacco farmers find another economically viable way to make a living. Another 50 percent of the settlement money goes to the Golden Leaf Foundation, which funds economic development initiatives in tobacco-dependent regions.

Both entities supported a new regional livestock market for the mountains, with a $875,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund and $500,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation. Other funding included a $400,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center and $75,000 from various county governments, local businesses and individual farmers.

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