Hall Schools plan on giving students full immersion with meat processing plant
Jan. 27—From soup to nuts, Hall County high schoolers will be involved in all manner of meat processing when the school district opens its namesake butcher shop later this year.
Funding for the meat processing center hasn't been approved yet, but school board chairman Craig Herrington said they will almost certainly sign off on the estimated $8 million price tag, down from the $9 million they floated a couple weeks ago.
Officials hope to finish construction by the end of the year, though it could be some time before you can buy a ribeye from your local school district, officials said.
"It's going to be HCSD Farms. It'll be vacuum-packed, it'll be ready to go and it'll be world class," Superintendent Will Schofield said.
While some of the details are still being fleshed out, don't be surprised if you see wagyu on the menu.
"I've even been talking with the University of Georgia about some niche markets and possibly raising some wagyu, which of course is the $40- to $50-a-pound Japanese beef," Schofield said. "I left a message for a man today about getting some wagyu embryos we could implant into our Angus cattle, then the calves they would have would be 100% wagyu, and we could even start our own local herd of wagyu here."
Schofield said they will take some of their marching orders from UGA, which has a meat processing center of its own. He made a visit recently to see how they run things.
The district signed a dual-enrollment agreement last year that allows high schoolers to take agriculture courses at UGA.
But as enticing as bougie beef might sound, turning a buck on meat isn't the main reason the county school district is spending millions to build a butcher shop at the Agribusiness Center — though Schofield said it could generate as much as $1 million per year in profit once it's fully up and running.
"Always, the No. 1 reason driving an investment like this is the career opportunities for our students," he said. "That's the idea, that these kids who have an interest in meat science, if they wanted to, would be in a position to either start a little plant of their own or go to work cutting meat for somebody. And, again, those are extremely lucrative jobs that you just can't find people to do."
But just how much of the dirty work will students be doing?
When ole Bessie's time has come, will students "stun" her with a bolt gun that drives a metal rod into her brain to render her unconscious before slaughter? Will they perform the following steps that are too graphic to describe in polite company?
The answer to those questions is yes, though with some caveats.
"Soup to nuts, they would be involved in every part of the processing," Schofield said. "Obviously, what it would start with is, we're going to have a couple individuals who know how to process meat, and kids will be walking alongside them and watching. And as the comfort level grows, they'll start participating to the point where, once a kid has been there for two to three months, we would hope that with the supervision of an adult, they could handle the process from start to finish."
Gage Medlin has been working part time on the farm since graduating from East Hall High in the summer. He makes $15 per hour and is working toward an agribusiness degree at North Georgia Technical College.
"He's slowly developed into the caretaker, if you will," Schofield said of Medlin. "He's able to do everything on the farm now, from problem solving to animal husbandry to taking care of the pigs."
The 18-year-old, who also has experience in showing cattle, is more keen on the before-slaughter side of things, though becoming a butcher isn't out of the question, he said.
Besides, there are innumerable careers in the field of agriculture. Students interested in marketing, for example, could help run the storefront and sell the meat.
"There's hardly anything you can't relate to agribusiness in some way," Medlin said.
At bottom, though, a meat processing center is designed to process meat — which requires killing, skinning and cutting up animals that might weigh upward of 1,200 pounds in the case of ole Bessie.
"There's always some risk. You're dealing with some heavier equipment, you're dealing with sharp knives," said Alex Stelzleni, professor of meat science at the University of Georgia. "The largest risk and issue is somebody getting cut."
Students who work in UGA's meat processing center wear chainmail aprons, protective gloves on the hand without the knife and even guards that go all the way up to their shoulder, Stelzleni said.
"I wouldn't say it really is any higher risk than some of the things that we already do in construction trades with kids," Schofield said. "I think we've so gotten into this culture of bubble-wrapping our kids — that 17-, 18-year-old kids can't do things — that I think we've really done them a disservice."
Who wants to live next to a meat processing plant?
What about North Hall residents who live nearby? Should they be concerned that a butcher shop is opening next door?
"This isn't your back-of-the-city dog food plant where you're boiling down bones and body parts," Schofield said.
"I got an email from a neighbor up there just in the last 24 hours worrying about the smell," he said. "When you think of rendering plants that smell, those are generally places that are taking animal body parts and turning them into dog food or rendering them down to save space. This is literally much more of a butcher shop where you'll have animals, and the waste parts will be hauled away on a daily basis."
Stelzleni echoed that point. "Especially on a smaller-scale facility, most people aren't even going to know that it's there and operating," he said.
Wastewater runoff is a particular concern for meat processing plants, but Becca Risser, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper headwaters watershed specialist, said they are usually well-regulated and don't have much impact on the environment.
"There are always runoff concerns from any construction project," Risser said. "As for meat processing plants, in particular, they have some special water-quality challenges because of the nature of their work. But a well-maintained and well-designed facility should be a benefit rather than a drag on the community."
"In general, we have a pretty robust system of permits and laws that regulate those sorts of industries," she added. "And many of the failures we see are in not complying with those laws."
Hall County Schools has submitted plans for building and land disturbance permits, according to Jeff Dale, facilities consultant for the district. He said they are awaiting feedback from county staff and will revise their plans if needed.
"This will be a multiple-week review process," he said Friday.
'We won't be competing with Oscar Mayer'
Small scale, in this case, means about 10 to 20 cattle a week at full capacity, Schofield said, though he said they'd probably have no interest in butchering that many animals unless they were faced with a shortage of meat. They will also butcher pigs, he said.
"We won't be competing with Oscar Mayer," he said, but "if we had some sort of a crisis where we didn't have protein, we think we could butcher between 10 and 20 cattle a week. ... That translates into an awful lot of hamburger patties in our local cafeterias and an awful lot of potential prime-cut steaks for community members."
Shortage of meat processors
Mike Haynes, owner of Muddy H Farms in Gainesville, said there is a shortage of meat processors in the area. Things have improved, he said, but up until recently, he had to wait as long as a year before he could get his cows butchered.
"It's better now, but last year, it was hard to get a date to have your beef processed," he said.
Schofield has criticized the concentration of the meat industry and called for a "return to local."
"I know a lot of farmers and grew up in farming families," he said. "Those individuals are going broke while we see the prices of meat in the store doubling or even tripling in some instances."
"As a seventh-generation dairy farmer, I have this firm belief that the better understanding we have of where our food supply comes from, the better care we'll take of it," he said. "We've kind of turned it over to large corporations and big business for too long. And I think it'll be — I know it will be — a very healthy step for more young people to have a better idea of where our food comes from."