EASTPARK Out on a bottom on Log Town Road, Tyler Wells stands on a gravel drive surveying his dream.
The acre-and-a-half tract is grown-up grass on a sweltering August afternoon, but by next spring Wells hopes it will be the epicenter of a dream he’s held since he was a kid.
“It was kind of one of those imaginary dreams you have — one these days, I’m wanting to do this,” Wells said. “It finally got to the point where, we need to do this.”
This being AW Meat House, a custom meats processing facility specializing in cattle, swine and deer. Named after his own legacy — all four of his and wife Laura’s kids’ names start with the letter A (Anderson, Adeline, Amelia and Alden) — the seed of the idea of starting a slaughter house was planted long ago, when Wells himself was a child.
The Cattleboy’s Roots
Growing up in Boyd County, Wells said his neighbor — the late Mr. Sluss — raised a lot of beef cattle. Wells’ father and grandfather would help out Mr. Sluss, vaccinating, castrating, doing all the backbreaking labor involved with animal husbandry. As a grade schooler, Wells said he tagged along and learned a thing or two.
“He (Mr. Sluss) was impressed with how much I hung in there with my father and grandfather helping,” Wells said. “They wouldn’t take any payment from him.”
One day, Mr. Sluss had a cow he couldn’t sell, so he gave it to the youngster. At a time when most boys are watching Saturday morning cartoons, shooting birds with BB guns and hopping bicycles off rickety ramps, Wells became a rancher.
The cow had a calf, the calf went to market, he bought another calf and, before you know it, he had a few head of cattle.
As a lad, Wells said he went to the Catlettsburg Stockyard with his family every Friday night. Long were the days of his grandfather, when the herds were run on U.S. 23 and loaded out by rail, but the smell of stale smoke, sawdust and cow manure still lingers in his nostrils to this day.
“You could find me down there every Friday night from the time I was a youngster to the time I was up in college,” he said. “My first checking account was opened through Kentucky Farmers Bank — Mike Bowling, the stockyard owner’s son, helped me open it because most people would not open a checking account for a 10-year-old boy.”
Heading off to the University of Kentucky to study food science, the call of the farm life still stayed with Wells. While most kids in college are waiting tables and zipping pies across town, Wells said his college gig was managing a 400-acre cattle farm near Lexington, where he got to sink his teeth into bigger operations than the 10-, 20-acre tracts one might see on a Sunday afternoon drive out Rush.
“It was a cow-calf operation, where we bred cattle, produced a calf crop every year, raised as much hay as we could, balanced rations, balanced a budget,” Wells said. “You’ve got to run it like a business or else you’ll go broke quick.”
Wells graduated, went into industry and started raising a family of his own. A few years ago, he bought a little patch of land out on Log Town Road, just inside the Greenup County line and started rearing some cattle — today, he has about 70 head, a huge operation by eastern Kentucky standards.
Now that dream of his head — starting up a slaughter house for the local farmer — stayed on the back burner. Occasionally, he’d call an old professor.
“I’d ask him to talk me out of it, but he never did,” he said. “It was one of those things I went back and forth on.”
Until COVID-19 hit.
Beef, it wasn't for dinner
While a New Yorker might view the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a bastion of tobacco farms and hotshot horses, anyone around here knows that’s just the relatively flat Bluegrass. Out in the rolling hills, there’s a little bit of large-scale beef, but nothing like the Midwest operations that slaughter thousands upon thousands a day.
And eastern Kentucky, with its steep bluffs and narrow hollers, is even more inhospitable to large-scale farming. A cursory look at the 2017 United State Department of Agriculture survey shows that in Boyd County, the average farm is about 96 acres, with a total of 203 operations. Almost half of those farms is less than 50 acres and only 25 of those farms exceed 180 acres.
Greenup has nearly triple the amount of farms, but still only 23% exceed that acreage. The majority of farms — between 40% and 56%, depending on the county — in Boyd, Carter, Elliott, Greenup, Lawrence, Lewis and Rowan counties make less than $2,500 in sales.
Lyndall Harned is the Boyd County Extension Agent for the University of Kentucky, the point man for information on agricultural trends in the area. The vast majority of cattle operations, according to Harned, are small scale.
“A lot of them are cow-calf operations, where they’re selling the calves birthed in the spring, some sell for custom cuts and others process the meat to eat for themselves,” he said.
Harned said a trend had been growing the years leading up to 2020 of “local-vores” — folks who want to know where their food comes from and to know the farmer who produces them, whether its corn or hens. It’s in that context where you’ll hear farmers talk about “custom beef” — rather than buying a pound of sirloin or a porterhouse, the consumer buys a whole or part of a cow and has the meat cut to their specs.
2020 — the year we’d all just as soon forget — was the first time in many Americans’ lifetimes consumers saw bare meat cases, Harden said.
“Those big operations out in the Midwest couldn’t process the meat because COVID forced the facility to shut down,” he said. “That really drove a demand for custom cuts for the freezer, which caused a lot of these smaller operations to step in.”
Wells said because of the pandemic, he’s got people from Lexington buying custom cuts of his cattle, which he currently has processed at the renowned Bear Creek Meats.
“A lot of people are hesitant about buying a quarter or a half or a whole cow,” he said. “They’re buying in bulk. They haven’t done that before if all they’re used to is buying it from a grocery store. During the pandemic, when everything was short, they were more willing.”
Wells continued, “Now it’s like I’m dealing crack — they’re calling me up, saying, ‘hey, you got any more meat?’ Once they try it, they won’t go back.”
That drive in demand forced farmers to reserve slots at their local processors for calves that weren’t even born yet, according to Harned and Wells. They’re booked a year or 18 months out in some cases. And getting those appointments in can make or break a cattleman, according to Wells.
“If I know I have a payment due in April on some equipment, I will stick in some beef appointments the prior month so I can make sure I got my payment,” Wells said. “It helps budget everything. Right now, they’re struggling to get the appointments.”
In 2020, Gov. Andy Beshear and Agricultural Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles developed the Meat Processing Investment Program to fill in those gaps. The idea behind it, according to Harned, was to increase the production capacity in the Commonwealth so even if the larger industrial processors shuttered, meat could still make it to the shelves. The program has different tiers, which can award grants for expansions or new builds of either up to $37,500 or $250,000 depending on the qualifications.
In May, Wells’s dream became a bit more real, when Quarles’ office announced the AW Meat House would receive $250,000 in grant money for the new build. Wells said most of that money is going into the equipment for the plant.
Wells said Harned and State Sen. Robin Webb were instrumental in getting that grant secured for the operation.
From dream to reality
Back on the bottom on Log Town Road, Wells points to the field where by wintertime, the meat processing plant will be erected. Measuring at 6,400 square feet, Wells said he carefully vetted various designs to come up with a facility he hopes will be as close to perfect as he can get it.
“It’s not going to be completely perfect, but it will be a very nice, well-built facility,” he said. “I’ve traveled all over the state seeing different facilities, seeing what I like and what I didn’t like.”
With dirt planned to be moved later this month, Wells said he is pushing to get all the concrete and foundation work complete before the weather snaps cold and the ground hardens up. The actual building will go up quick, as it is a prefab.
One feature is a drive-through lane for dropping of cattle.
“I don’t think anything embarrasses anyone more than backing up a trailer,” he said. “It’s like a boat ramp — I don’t think anything separates the men from the boys more than backing up a boat to the water.”
Wells continued, “We’re going to eliminate that here — they can circle around and we’ll have gates here and they come in, drop off and pull out. They’ll have a straight shot.”
By the first few weeks of January, the building should be complete — once running at full capacity, Wells said the shop should process between 50 to 70 heads of cattle or hogs a week. Compared to the Midwest operations, Wells said it’s a drop in the bucket. But anyone who saw the Soviet-era style lines coming out of White’s Meat Market knows every little bit counts.
During the winter, Wells said he wants to use his own cattle to fine-tune the process and find a rhythm with the 10 or so employees he has on deck for opening day. Once the process has been fine-tuned, he said production will ramp up and a total of 20 people will be employed.
At first, Wells will only be able to do custom cuts — those don’t require USDA inspection. However, the goal is to get the facility licensed for retail cuts, so that local farmers can sell steaks and whatnot directly to consumers at the local farmers’ markets.
Harned said the methodical rollout — and the fact the facility is new and is already undergoing all the licensing required for getting off the ground — makes it a prime candidate for getting that certification for retail cuts.
“I think that’s pretty responsible of him, because if you go too quick and don’t have all the processes fine-tuned, it will hurt you in the long run,” Harned said. “You might get the licensing, but the quality won’t be there. By focusing on getting the quality there first, then pursuing the licensing, that really gets him in a good position.”
And that could be a gamechanger for local cattlemen and women — Wells said one has to drive more than 100 miles to find a USDA-certified beef and pork facility.
The facility will also have a retail space for deli meats, beef cuts and cheese, too, Wells said. And that little space — which will also have a drive-through window to make a quick pickup with the kids in the back seat — will pay homage to where Wells’s dream began: the Catlettsburg Stockyard.
Wells said he has been in contact with JC Williams, who bought the old property and salvaged lumber from it — he hopes he will be able to get some of that lumber to incorporate into the retail area of the operation.
“It (the stockyard) wasn’t just about buying cattle. It was talking to the local farmers, hearing what they’re doing, hearing their stories, hearing some colorful jokes here and there. It was a big part of me and I was sad to see it go,” Wells said. “I feel like I really owe it to it. I hated to see it go, but I hope this (AW Meat House) will help carry it on. Forward-looking, I hope this venture we’re about to embark upon will help rebuild some of the agriculture in this area.”
For farmers who might be needing appointments come spring 2022, or those interested in what’s going on out on Log Town Road, AW Meat House has a website at www.awmeathouse.com, as well as a Facebook page.
(606) 326-2653 |