The University of Kentucky will greatly increase the amount of beef produced in Kentucky that it serves students, faculty and staff in coming months.
Under a new agreement, The Chop Shop in Wolfe County and Omni Custom Meats in Bowling Green will increase their production of beef for UK to about 10,000 pounds a week. Sysco, one of UK's main food suppliers, will buy the meat and provide it to Aramark, which runs UK's dining service.
The partnership means UK will go from buying three head of cattle a week from Kentucky producers to 30.
The deal will help Aramark fulfill its contract with UK, which requires it to buy $1.2 million worth of local food each year.
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"We are delighted that our campus partnership has provided an opportunity not only to make this connection with Appalachian farmers and food producers, but also to provide another Kentucky Proud and direct-farm impact menu option for the campus community," said Leisha Vance, sustainability manager with UK Dining.
Kentucky has more cattle than any state east of the Mississippi River, but most of the meat is sent to the Midwest for finishing.
Aramark's contract with UK stipulates that by 2024, 20 percent of UK Dining's food and beverage purchases will be from local sources and will qualify for inclusion in the Kentucky Proud marketing program. By 2029, that will increase to 25 percent.
It can be difficult for some of the state's smaller meat processors to work directly with Sysco, which has more stringent food-safety standards than the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Scott Smith, who runs the Food Connection at UK, which is aimed at promoting a healthy and sustainable food economy in Kentucky.
Omni Custom Meats, which has processed meat for 32 years and has previously worked with Sysco, is helping to fill the void by working with The Chop Shop in Wolfe County, Smith said.
"So the motivation was passed from Aramark to Sysco to Omni to acquire sources of Kentucky beef," Smith said. "This is an important step in efforts to move locally produced food beyond farmers markets and on-farm retail and expand the benefits to food producers and consumers."
The deal could help counties in Eastern Kentucky that have been hurt by the declining coal industry.
Daniel Wilson, the agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Wolfe County, said the number of livestock producers in the region is growing.
"This arrangement is great for The Chop Shop, it's great for farmers, and it's great for the area," Wilson said. "Agriculture provides people with another avenue to make money."
Wilson and Sarah Fanning, the extension agent in neighboring Morgan County, wrote a proposal that led to a $280,000 Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund grant, and $70,000 in other grants, that were used to buy freezers for The Chop Shop.
"Omni, Sysco, Aramark and UK are the first ones to really buy into what The Chop Shop can provide," Wilson said. "I'm passionate about these (Chop Shop) guys. They have a wonderful facility over here. It's the most modern slaughter facility I've ever been in, and I'm just happy to see it go to them."
The Chop Shop is in a 100-acre agricultural industrial park in Lee City.
Owner Jonathan Whitt said the partnership "will unite all levels of the agribusiness community, starting with ground level, local farmers all the way to larger wholesalers and end users, like the University of Kentucky."
Local beef does not necessarily mean it's free of antibiotics and hormones, nor is it "farm to table," a term that means a farmer takes the product to market directly, Smith said.
"This is conventionally farmed beef that is raised on a much more local, regionalized scale than what you would get at the grocery store," Smith said.