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Wednesday, 06 January 2016 15:34

Cattle-loading facility, intended for Jackson County, could come to Swain

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fr cattleRob Hawk’s been trying since spring to find a landing place for the grant he’d helped get for a cattle loading facility, but in his search through Jackson County, the Cooperative Extension director came up short.

Now, it’s looking like Jackson might get passed over in favor of a site Hawk’s now eyeing in Bryson City.   

“Whittier was definitely more central,” Hawk said. “That’s where we wanted it, but seeing we can’t find a location here, we still wanted to keep it in the near vicinity. Swain County’s a good second alternative.”  

When Lynn Sprague, executive director of the Southwestern N.C. Resource Conservation and Development Council, applied for the $22,500 Tennessee Valley Authority grant last year, he’d figured that the cattle facility would go in at the old Drexel factory property in Whittier. The county owns the site, and Sprague had been working for years on a plan to repurpose the vacant building as an agricultural center. A cattle-loading facility would be the perfect complement to the hoped-for ag center, Sprague reasoned. 

But a combination of factors conspired to knock the ag center idea off course. The building’s location on a floodplain made things complicated, and renovating the building turned out to be a more expensive endeavor than county commissioners were willing to take on. That left the cattle loading facility, though paid for through the grant, without a home. 

Despite months of searching, no alternative site showed itself in Jackson County, and Hawk’s hoping that the spot he’s zeroed in on in Bryson City ends up working out. The property, owned by the TVA but leased by the town, is currently used by the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina. 

“We’re getting good, positive feedback from the town, and even from the horse people,” Hawk said. “We’re trying to work it where we don’t infringe on the horsemen because they were there first.”

Josh Ward, town manager for Bryson City, echoed Hawk’s comments and said the town board will likely discuss the issue at its February meeting. From a visit to the site with Hawk and a few others, it looks like the horsemen could continue to use the large riding rink that’s there if the second, smaller riding rink and old shed — which the horsemen don’t much use, he said — could come out to make way for the cattle loading facility. 

“It would benefit the people here close that they wouldn’t have to transport the cattle to Canton to that facility there,” Ward said. 

Currently, the WNC Regional Livestock Center in Canton is the furthest west facility of its kind in the state. It’s a place where cattlemen can take their livestock to be picked up for sale, getting better prices than if buyers had to make special trips out to the boonies to pick up a few head here and there. The center also makes processes such as vaccinating animals easier to do, providing equipment to restrain cattle while they’re getting medical attention and preventing them from hurting their caretakers. 

“Most small producers, they don’t have facilities to do that,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz, who raises cattle. “I don’t and I’ve fooled with them for 40 years. Some way I always get it done, but it’s not the best of both worlds.”

However, Dietz does question how much use a cattle-loading facility stationed out in Bryson City might get. He’s worked with the Canton livestock center for years and at one point helped with cattle pickup stations they’d set up in Andrews, Franklin and Swain County. The one in Andrews did great, the one in Franklin did OK, and the one in Swain did pretty terrible. 

“I think the nine or 10 months we did it we had 80 or 90 head that we processed, and that wasn’t enough to continue doing it that way,” Dietz said. 

Still, the facility will offer more than just cattle pickup. It will give cattlemen access to equipment and, eventually, probably offer education as well. 

“I think it would be a good thing, but I don’t think that it’s something that’s going to be huge,” Dietz said. 

The facility’s location isn’t yet a done deal either way, however. To find a home in Bryson City, the town board would have to give its approval, and the TVA, which owns the property — and also awarded the grant — would have to give the OK as well. 

And there’s still some chance that the facility could wind up in Whittier, after all. A group of farmers from the area has been trying to work out a deal with commissioners to use the Drexel property as an agriculture co-op, housing packaging equipment, storage space for bulk purchases and commercial-size coolers to store produce awaiting sale. If that happens, Hawk said, he could see a scenario in which the cattle facility co-locates with the ag co-op. 

But that discussion, too, is an evolving process. Commissioners have made it clear they want to let the farmers use the property, but working out all the legal and procedural details surrounding such an agreement will probably take some time. 

“This is a little bit new territory for us in some ways,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

And commissioners may just flat-out not want to tie Drexel up with a more permanent installation like a cattle-loading facility. Several of them have said that if a trustworthy buyer offering up-front cash came around, they’d be happy to sell. 

So for now, Hawk is focused on the Bryson City site and hoping it winds up being a go. 

“It’s movement in the right direction,” he said. 

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