How far would you drive for $100?
That’s the dilemma Haywood County cattle farmer Neal Stamey faces each time he hooks his trailer up to his pickup truck, loads up the cow or cows he’ll sell that day, and makes the 100-mile round-trip trek across the state line to a cattle auction in Newport, Tenn. There, a bidder will snap up Stamey’s animals, hopefully for a fair price. If Stamey’s brought only one cow, he’ll be lucky to make $100.
“There’s not enough money in the cattle business to have to haul cattle 100 miles to sell them,” Stamey says. “You can’t afford $150 bucks of gas for one cow.”
Since the closure of the only regional livestock market five years ago, these far-reaching auction houses are the only viable option Western North Carolina cattle farmers have if they hope to make a sale. The financial burden of the journey has forced an increasing number of cattle farmers out of business.
But now, the local farmers have asked for the state’s help to stop that decline with the construction of a state-of-the-art livestock market in Haywood County — a move that could prove crucial to preserving the region’s rural heritage and landscape.
In recent years, North Carolina lost more farms than almost any other state.
“Our concern is to keep producers in business, and keep all this land in farming,” said George Ivey, a Haywood County farming advocate. “In many cases, if you sell off the cattle, the only thing you’re growing there are houses.”
A blow to farmers
Livestock is a surprisingly big industry in this region. More than 3,000 farmers in 19 western counties keep cattle, selling off 80,000 each year. Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.
But the total number of cattle in this part of the state has been on a decline since the region’s primary auction house, located in Asheville, shut down five years ago. Most farmers now trek to markets in Tennessee South Carolina, and Georgia.
“Historically, we’ve had markets here in WNC, and it’s been tough without them the last several years,” said Bill Teague, director of the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.
The lack of a market, coupled with a severe drought that has gripped the region and led to skyrocketing hay prices, has led many cattle farmers to get out of the business altogether.
“A lot of people just quit and sold,” both their cattle and farms, said Lyman Bradley, a Jackson County cattle farmer.
“You’ve had the loss of a reliable and local market, and that’s enough to drive some people out of business,” agreed Ivey.
The situation has been helped a bit with the re-opening of a 1960s-era livestock auction in Canton, today run by Ed Johnson, a Madison County farmer. The auction was re-opened a year ago, and it’s seen some success.
“Before Johnson opened the auction, most everyone had to go out of state,” Bradley said.
But the facility is outdated and small, lacking the capacity that the former Asheville market had. A recent auction there featured 18 cows for sale — an impressive number given the icy, chilly conditions that day, but still far below the 800 to 900 cattle that were auctioned off each week at the Asheville market.
A large livestock market, “is something we need drastically,” Stamey said.
Big shoes to fill
Market advocates estimate it would cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million to construct the type of livestock market that will bring buyers — and in turn, competitive prices — to the region’s cattle farmers.
Initially, they wanted to build a slaughterhouse, but then realized they needed to lay the groundwork by providing a place where farmers could sell their cows.
The proposed market will be located in the heart of Western North Carolina cattle farming country along I-40 at the Haywood-Buncombe County line.
The first round of funding for the market — $500,000 for construction planning — will come out of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund. The trust fund was created following the lawsuit against Big Tobacco and used to help tobacco-dependent regions find another economically viable way to make a living. Essentially, one industry that has all but vanished in WNC could help another embattled industry survive.
“Our primary purpose is to improve the quality of life by increasing the income for the family farmer, and hopefully be able to replace the loss of income that occurred with the loss of tobacco,” said L.T. Ward, chairman of WNC Communities, the organization through which the Tobacco Trust Fund grant has been funneled.
Stamey, a cattle farmer, said that’s exactly how the trust fund money should be used.
“This is not taxpayer money — this is money the tobacco industry made before it was put out of business,” Stamey said. “In surrounding states, they’ve put that money back in agriculture, and we deserve some of that money.”
The parallels between tobacco and livestock are many, and both played a vitally important role in sustaining families in WNC. Just as families kept a small tobacco crop to supplement their income, many also kept a few cows — and that number has increased since the tobacco buyout.
“Tobacco used to be a good cash crop for a lot of farmers,” said Ivey. “With that gone, more people have turned to cattle to recover some of that income they used to get from tobacco.”
Stamey says beef cattle, like tobacco, has long played an important role in Haywood County. “In the past, tobacco and cattle have been big industries here,” he said.
Stamey’s parents kept a few cattle, and Stamey himself continued that tradition, though his full-time job was at the the paper mill in Canton.
The cows “sort of help supplement your income,” Stamey said. And there are several advantages to raising cattle. Cows can graze on hillslides unsuitable for crops, and they’re easy enough to tend to, requiring a feeding every three days in the winter and none in the summer, when they can be left on open pasture.
Stamey says he, like others, continues to keep cattle not just for some extra income, but also because it’s in his blood.
“I reckon it’s sort of like fishing. If you ever get hooked on it, you just keep doing it,” Stamey laughed.
By building a new livestock market where farmers can sell their cows easily, those involved hope to preserve a way of life in Western NC and possibly attract a new generation of farmers.
“You’re not going to get as many young people in the cattle business if they don’t have somewhere to sell them,” Stamey said.
Besides preserving mountain heritage, market supporters predict that a new livestock auction will have more tangible economic benefits.
First and foremost, the new facility will benefit farmers — not only by saving them the cost of transporting livestock long distances, but also by earning them more money on each sale.
“A viable market will attract buyers that are willing to pay higher prices,” said Ward. At a recent presentation of the livestock market plans, Ward promised a group of cattle farmers: “You will have more money in your pockets when you complete those transactions.”
Officials hope the new market will also generate jobs, and in turn, that employees will put their money back in the local economy. Ward predicted an increase in the number of livestock produced. That could bring more industry that centers around livestock, such as veterinarians.
Additionally, a portion of $1 from the sale of each cattle will go to fund the state’s Beef Checkoff program, which goes to market and promote N.C. beef products. The state misses out on that money when its cattle are sold out of state.
Pushing out private industry?
Some in the cattle industry don’t support the proposed market, particularly operators of existing markets who feel like the state is pushing them aside and out of business.
“That’s not what the (tobacco trust fund) money is for, to build a facility to compete with private industry,” said Al Eatmon, who runs a cattle auction in Shelby.
However, a state report that analyzed the need for a livestock market in WNC found that the Shelby market attracted less cattle than the closest out of state markets, though it’s one of only two in WNC.
Ed Johnson, owner of the cattle market in Canton, says advocates of the new market have ignored the effort he has made to help farmers by opening up his operation last year.
“They told me, if you don’t get this open, some of us will lose our farms,” he said.
Johnson has sacrificed to keep his operation open for the farmers who rely on him — he hasn’t pulled a paycheck in three months. He says just $10,000 would go a long way toward making needed repairs to his facility, and help it become a viable market.
“This works. We can make it work,” he said.
Johnson questions why the state is choosing to spend millions on a new facility rather than helping out an existing operator like himself.
“They’re looking to help out the local guy, yet they’re wanting to spend $3.5 million on a new market,” he said.
Randy McCoy, a Macon County cattle farmer and frequent patron at Johnson’s auction, said the money the state wants to spend is excessive.
“I don’t know if they have enough cattle in the area to spend that kind of money on a stockyard,” he said.
The state’s report did find that there aren’t enough cattle in WNC to sustain two competing markets. Ward said the plan to build a market was already in motion by the time Johnson opened his, and that the new market is targeting the 40,000 cattle currently being sold at auctions out of state, not the ones Johnson is selling.
“I’ve spoken to Johnson to clarify that we are not creating a market to try to take his market,” said Ward. “On the other hand, we will not be able to direct the producer, and if they emigrate from him to our market,” there’s nothing the state can do, he said.
Ward said Johnson is welcome to throw his name in the hat along with other operators interested in running the market. WNC Communities, the recipient of the grant that will help build the market, plans to lease the facility to a private operator at a low cost.
Ward said the state’s study showed that most cattle farmers support the new livestock market, and that benefiting the farmers is the ultimate goal of the market project.