JEFFERSON — With nowhere in Ashe County to sell livestock, local farmers transport their herds off the mountain on selling day, grazing profits and shepherding money away from the local economy, according to Ashe County N.C. Cooperative Extension Livestock Agent Micah Orfield.
“We don’t have a location here in the county to sell our cattle, sheep or goats,” Orfield said. “About 99.9 percent of our livestock has to leave the county in order to be sold, and money is leaving the county when that happens.”
In order to determine the value of livestock, an animal needs to be weighed when it is sold, Orfield said. Because they have no place to weigh and sell their livestock within the county, Ashe farmers load their animals into trailers and drive them to agriculture centers elsewhere in North Carolina, like Wilkesboro or Turnersburg, or across state lines to Abingdon, Baywood, Glade Springs or Wytheville, Virginia, according to Orfield.
“We are driving an hour, hour-and-a-half away to sell our livestock — our cattle lose weight on that drive, and we sell our cattle by the pound,” Orfield said. “So when we’re taking that trip, we’re also losing weight, and we’re losing time, instead of being able to get back and profit as much as we can.”
As an example, a stressed steer can lose up to 3.3 percent of its bodyweight in transit from the farm to its out-of-county selling destination — up to 20 pounds lost on a 600-pound cow, according to Orfield.
In a load of 15-18 Ashe County cattle, the lost weight adds up to 300-360 pounds less beef on selling day, Orfield said. At a selling point of $1.40 per pound of beef, Ashe County farmers can lose as much as $500 per load due to the weight-loss transportation causes their stock, not including travel expenses, Orfield said.
“It’s a huge inconvenience for the farmer, who puts all this work into raising the cattle, then spends so much money on fuel and time driving, and isn’t getting as much money out of their livestock,” Orfield said.
For the 10th largest cattle-producing county in North Carolina, total losses to Ashe farmers could be more than $400,000 per year of trucking their herds out of the county, according to calculations made using statistics provided by the Ashe County Cattlemen’s Association via Orfield.
The closer the selling point is to a cow’s farm of origin, the less weight it loses on the way to being sold, Orfield said.
Moreover, farmers pick up medicine for their other livestock at veterinarian offices conveniently located close to the out-of-county agriculture centers, and might also grab lunch and refuel on gas on their way back up to Ashe, further taking money out of the county economy, according to Orfield.
“A lot of that money we’re getting is leaving the county,” Orfield said. “There’s a huge need for somewhere to sell livestock in Ashe — it’s very needed.”
According to Orfield, the Ashe County cooperative extension has been working with the county administration office for the past year to find a central location in Ashe County where local farmers can sell their livestock several times a year to bulk buyers.
“We definitely want to open it up to Wilkes, Watauga and Grayson County, Virginia as well,” Orfield said.
According to acting Ashe County Manager Adam Stumb, the county needs a flat 15-20 acre plot of land to be developed into a county agricultural center.
“We’re looking at different options — you can’t just go out and find any piece of land, you’ve got to have all these checkboxes, and that makes it a tricky project,” Stumb said. “We need a good, flat piece of land if it’s going to be more than just a cattle scale — we’ve talked about a meeting space, and a classroom for 4-H.”
While locations are scouted and concepts for an Ashe County Agriculture Center have floated between the cooperative extension and county planner’s office, High Country Council of Governments Master Planner Kelly Coffey has applied for several grants on behalf of the county.
In an email to Ashe Post & Times, Coffey said HCCOG helped the county apply in December 2018 for grant money from the N.C. Agriculture Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, as well as the Golden LEAF Foundation. According to Coffey, Ashe will not hear back about that grant funding until late 2019, but in the meantime HCCOG will help the county apply for an Appalachian Regional Commission grant in the spring.
“Livestock producers have expressed a real need for a facility, and I hope we can get it funded,” Coffey said in the email. “The (Ashe County) Cattlemen’s Association submitted an application to the Tobacco Trust Fund last year, but it wasn’t awarded. We’re going to talk to a representative and see if we can reapply, this time with the county as the applicant.”
According to Coffey, the county cooperative extension and individual livestock producers are heavily involved in contributing to the grant applications, and HCCOG is helping Ashe County apply for grants from any and all organizations she knows of that might help fund a livestock facility.
According to Stumb, plans for an Ashe County Agriculture Center will be a topic of discussion at a future meeting of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.