Iowa poultry plant looks to China for revenue
Over the past 40 years, livestock processing facilities in Iowa have had to diversify to stay in business. Many have grown larger, but a few have been able to survive by discovering a niche market.
One plant in northeast Iowa found its niche by providing a delicacy to China.
With immigration raids forcing some plants to shutter completely and others struggling to implement stringent safety regulations while still making a profit, the most successful plants are thinking outside the box, according to John Lawrence, a livestock specialist at Iowa State University Extension.
“Part of it is looking for an opportunity to grow a market just in volume alone, others may be looking for a way to add value to a product that has little value here at home,” Lawrence said. “Chicken feet is one that we often hear is a delicacy in places like the orient, but may not make it your menu here in the states.”
That’s right, chicken feet. Cedar River Processing in Charles City, Iowa, is preparing to process spent hens and ship their feet to China.
To remain competitive, livestock processing companies like Cedar River have to look to outside markets, Lawrence said.
“In Iowa we’re blessed with a lot of natural resources in the form of soil and land and pastures and farms raising this livestock, yet we only have a population of around 3 million people,” Lawrence said. “It would greatly limit our economic activity if we didn’t trade outside our state borders. You can take that extension one step further and say outside our national borders, such as the exports to China.”
The company was looking to expand and it found fertile ground in Iowa, said Gary Shank, the general manager of the plant.
“We started looking about a year and a half ago to find a processor who would process hens with the head and feet on – nobody was willing to do that,” Shank said. “So we started looking to see where the most spent hens were in the country and we started looking at Iowa.”
Cedar River Processing is affiliated with the Charles Austin wholesale meat company of Chicago, which has been doing business overseas for years. Lawrence said partnerships are one of the keys to success.
“Iowa, being the largest egg producing state in the nation, has a number of spent hens that historically have had a low valueand at times were even a cost to dispose of,” Lawrence said. This new plant is “doing it in such a way that they can utilize that product.”
Finding enough animals to keep the facility running is imperative to the plant’s success. In Iowa, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“It’ll be slow at first as we get people trained,” Shank said. “We hope to get to 60,000 birds per day in one shift. A year or so down the road we would like to put on a night shift so that we’re killing 100,000 birds a day.”
All that processing means a number of jobs for Charles City. Shank said the company will initially employ around 60 workers and hopes to more than double that number over the next three years.
Cedar River Poultry began processing hens on Dec. 27.