Cotton offers views on prospect of a new livestock processing facility
WEST WINDSOR — Speaking at the New Jersey Farm Bureau annual convention, agribusiness entrepreneur Richard Cotton offered his take on the prospect of creating a livestock processing facility in northwest New Jersey.
Cotton operated Cotton Cattle Co. livestock farm with his son, Bryce in Asbury.
They direct-market grass-fed meats to consumers and participate in two community farmers’ markets in Hoboken and Summit.
“For us, grazing animals, beef, pork, even poultry sets us up pretty well in the northern part of New Jersey,” he said, given soils there aren’t as productive for fruit and vegetable production as they are in central and southern New Jersey.
“What we don’t have that we did have in the old days is the infrastructure to run an industry, whether it’s processing animals or processing vegetables,” Cotton said.
Over the years, Cotton has been involved with dairy production, swine production, various cooperatives and working on the agricultural business side of farming, he said even with major challenges in farming,
“I’ve never been more excited about the opportunities for agriculture in New Jersey,” he said.
Much of Cotton’s excitement for the future has to do with the shift from selling commodity products to direct marketing to consumers, he said.
“If we’re going to make sure agriculture stays in New Jersey, we have to engage young people, and if we don’t utilize technology and things that are near and dear to their hearts we’re going to lose them in the business,” Cotton said.
He added nothing makes him happier than to see young people coming back from college to help out at the family farm “to stay involved in our communities and be inspired by what they do.”
By setting up the right series of public-private partnerships, and using state-of-the-art technology to attract young people to jobs in a processing facility Cotton said New Jersey could tap itself into a billion-dollar beef, pork and chicken industry.
Cotton cited all the farm operations that used to grow tomatoes for Campbell Soup in Camden and the cranberries for Ocean Spray juices in Bordentown.
Young people are attracted to and comfortable with new technologies, he added, so integrating technology into the picture would be a good way to attract a steady stream of talent to work in a processing facility in northwest New Jersey.
Cotton said a public-private partnership or series of partnerships with involvement from Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and large and small livestock farmers should soon lead to the creation of a livestock processing facility to handle the needs of all Garden State livestock farmers.
“I do believe that the northern part of New Jersey could be the protein center for high-quality beef, pork, and chicken for nearby markets in New York and Philadelphia, so the way we raise it, the way we process it, has to be a little bit different, and those models are out there” he argued.
If the much-needed processing facility is created in the right way, Cotton said, “there’s room for both camps of people; people who just want to get one or two cattle slaughtered and the other people who are producing much larger quantities and want to market their label and their brand.”
Given today’s climate of food insecurity and meat processing plants being shut down by COVID last year, Cotton said, “I couldn’t have asked for the stars to have been lined up any better for some of these opportunities.
“Where I am, raising animals is a great way to take advantage of the opportunity with all the preserved farmland we have,” he said, adding. “But now we have to look at who are going to be the people to run these operations? If young people are going to stay on the land and raise their families and pay their taxes, it has to be viable.”
Direct marketing of his beef products to consumers changes the game on how you position your product, market your product and ultimately distribute your product, Cotton said.
The trend of people buying local food from their local farms isn’t going away, he said, and it has the supermarket industry worried, “because we don’t think this paradigm shift away from going to the grocery store is going to change anytime soon. So how do we create products for direct delivery and how can we do distribution for the farm retail stand?”
Cotton also noted the state is already looking into a marketing campaign similar to the highly successful Jersey Fresh program that would work for New Jersey-raised beef, pork and poultry.
Cotton noted that two major interstate highways run through Warren County near Asbury, where his operation is based, and those highways also make parts of the county ideal for a beef, pork and poultry processing facility.
Cotton said whether it’s a non-profit or for-profit facility, it has to be near good sewer, water, high voltage electric and have relatively easy access for trucks.
“There is no doubt you have to be in a location that not only is accessible [to nearby highways] and has all those functions, but is also acceptable in the community,” he said. “That’s a challenge for New Jersey, but I think we have some answers for that. I believe we have to take the opportunity. We have the ability to grow safe healthy food for those food deserts in the inner cities [and tap into other nearby] huge markets for us, to invest in and grow an industry so we can have safe, healthy food that is produced here.”