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New Colorado lamb processing plant still working to get online

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post

Colorado Lamb Processors aims to be up and running this summer, after COVID-19 slowed construction at the Brush, Colo., facility.

“I want to believe that sometime in the middle of June we’ll be flipping switches and testing the waters,” said Mike Harper, a partner in the facility, along with the Rule and Raftopoulos families. If not by then, Harper said he feels safe to say it should happen in July.

Construction was held up two weeks when an employee of the concrete contractor was diagnosed with COVID-19. Unfortunately, the 45-year-old employee later died. “That hit pretty hard,” Harper said.

Spence Rule, another partner, confirmed COVID-19 slowed construction. Still, he didn’t know if it would have been up and running even without the pandemic. The goal now is to open the facility as quickly and economically as possible, he said. Safety is also a high priority. “We don’t want to put a whole new workforce in jeopardy,” he said. “We have to be careful about how we open up, in that respect.”

Harper echoed that, saying that the plan is to open up slowly, manning the facility with small numbers of good employees and educating them properly. Then, as the business grows, add more employees and increase production. In the end, he believes it would have been worse to have the plant up and operating earlier. “I just thank my lucky stars we weren’t open when COVID-19 hit,” he said.

When production starts, the plant will harvest only small numbers. At full capacity the plant is designed to hold 1,800 carcasses in its coolers, equal to one days’ harvest, Harper said. However, it would be foolish to think the facility will reach those numbers immediately. “I would hope that maybe by next Easter we might touch the edges of that for a short time anyway,” he said. “That would be a personal goal.”

Initially, Colorado Lamb Processors will sell lamb carcasses to customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, that will do the work of breaking down the meat into marketable cuts, called fabrication, and packaging it. “It’s a big investment in itself on the harvest side, let alone if you start to further process the carcasses,” he said.

Eventually, Harper hopes to grow the business to the point where it can do its own fabrication and packaging. However, that could take four to six years before they get to that point, he said.

FAMILY PROJECT

The Harper, Rule and Raftopoulos families have been a part of the lamb industry for more than 100 years combined. “We’re pretty dedicated to the industry and we felt like we needed a new facility to carry it into the next generation,” Harper said, adding that while it’s a big investment, the partners are hopeful that having an ultra modern, high efficiency plant will pay off.

Rule agreed, adding no new lamb processing facilities have been built in a long time. As a result, equipment breakdowns and other issues have kept existing processing plants from operating at capacity. Having a new plant online will give the three partners the ability to harvest at their desired weight and time, he said.

Each of the families have an equal partnership in the business, Harper said, meaning each owner member must provide an equal share of the lambs for harvest. The animals will come from their ranching and feeding operations or, if necessary, from animals they purchase from other producers.

INDUSTRY IMPACT

Having more options and increased competition is going to be good for the industry, said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. The demand for lamb is growing but the domestic industry has not. That means growing interest in lamb meat has been filled by imported lamb. The industry has had a lot of conversations about how to increase domestic competition and production, in order to recapture some of that market share. “So we don’t just build demand to have it go to imports,” she said.

There is a strong need for high quality processing facilities with competitive pricing. Limited capacity of processing facilities is one of the industry’s biggest market barriers, she said. Growing the industry will help lamb meat become more price competitive and capture more of the protein market share. “We are really excited about this plant,” Wortman said, adding if the lamb processing industry can increase harvesting capacity, it may encourage lamb producers to increase flock numbers.

COVID-19 has had a mixed impact on the industry, she said. Restaurant closures hit hard. “Literally overnight 50 percent of our market was lost,” she said.“We have really thrived in fine dining.”

Despite the challenges, Wortman said the industry has pivoted and found other ways to market its product, including a lot of direct to consumer sales. “We were really impressed with that innovation,” she said.

In addition, lamb sales have surged at grocery stores, where consumers have been stockpiling meat for fear of not having access to it later. Recently grocery stores were stocking more lamb and in cuts not traditionally sold, putting it in the hands of some consumers for the first time. “We saw huge spikes in retail sales through Easter,” she said.

That’s good news for the industry. While ham is now more commonly served as part of a traditional Easter meal, lamb used to hold that spot, Harper said. Today the industry is working to regain the status it had previously. “Easter has, historically, been a big lamb holiday,” he said. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at hollyjessenmedia@gmail.com


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