New Meat Processing Facility Aims to Rewire Supply Chain
by JESSICA McDONALD & PAUL CATALA
January marks the beginning of fair season throughout Central Florida, and Polk County’s Youth Fair kicks off the festivities. This year, fair participants and their families have a new opportunity once the fun wraps up.
If the pandemic proved anything, it was the need for more meat-processing facilities at the state and local levels. Interruptions at the nation’s largest meat-processing corporations — which handle an estimated 80 percent of the total supply — led to shortages and other supply-chain disruptions.
That struggle prompted fourth-generation Florida farmer Baxter Troutman to evaluate how he could bring the meat-processing function closer to home. That shift, he says, could be a game-changer for the local agriculture industry and especially youth fair participants.
A History in Ag
The 56-year-old Frostproof native is no newcomer to the Florida agriculture scene. He has a long history with citrus and cattle ranching, and in 2010 he opened Chop-N-Block, a Winter Haven custom meat-processing business that serves area hunters and farmers.
Troutman tried his hand at processing for fairs in a limited capacity in 2021 and then more extensively in 2022. He worked with eight fairs, including the Polk County Youth Fair and Florida Strawberry Festival, as well as fairs in Charlotte County, Kissimmee River Valley, Orange County, and two in DeSoto County. At the time, he processed roughly 500-600 head of livestock.
Taking It to the Next Level
Now, he’s building on that vision to better serve the ag community and those who have worked so hard to pass on their way of life to the youths.
This month, he opened Florida First Meats LLC — also called F1 Meat Co. — a full-service meat processing operation that will serve the 28 county fairs within the Central Florida region.
The Frostproof operation, which is a professional, USDA-certified facility, is currently up and running, and the official grand opening/field day was held January 13.
Troutman expects the facility to handle an estimated 2,500 head of livestock this season — which is roughly 35 percent of the area’s fair animals.
During the first four months of each year, the focus will be on processing livestock from the youth fair. Once the fair season is over, F1 Meat Co. will focus on working with local ranchers to buy their animals at market prices to sell via e-commerce and directly to food service entities, wholesale, and retail grocery stores.
“A meat-processing service is very important to the overall success of a county fair, and it’s the last part of the process for kids raising livestock animals,” he explains. “You’ve got to have a professional, dependable, reliable processor in order for a fair to be a success.”
Addressing a Need
The businessman hopes that by bringing the meat processing function to the local level, he’ll be able to help local farmers and the community.
Currently, Central Florida farmers and fair participants are limited in their options for processing meat. While there are small, backyard operations, they may not be able to guarantee safety and cleanliness like a facility that is fully vetted by the USDA.
“There are only six USDA-certified meat processing facilities south of Interstate 4 in Florida, and four of those are for specifically kosher or halal processing,” he says. “This means, essentially, there are only two USDA-inspected facilities south of I-4 dedicated to nonreligious processing. That needs to change.”
What’s in a Certification?
So why is USDA certification important?
“When you’re under USDA inspection, you are held to a higher standard,” Troutman explains. “The USDA’s primary objective is cleanliness. We have to submit plans by which we will process the animals. [The USDA] reviews and accepts those plans and then holds us accountable for them.”
It’s that kind of assurance that he says the ag community of Central Florida desperately needs.
“Eighty percent of Florida’s major cattle-ranching operations are within 150 miles of where F1 Meats is set up,” he says. “That did not happen by accident.”
The community’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Troutman says he’s been approached by small, backyard ranchers and large operations alike who are enticed by the direct farm-to-fork model, the elimination of middlemen, and the hyper-local advantage.
“What I’m doing is unprecedented,” he says. “My hope is that this will help those in the farming community, particularly the youths, and make them want to stay in farming and ranching.”
Troutman served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2002 to 2010 and is the founder and chief executive officer of the Labor Solutions staffing agency. He also owns Dark Hammock Legacy Ranch, a 5,000-acre working cattle ranch just west of Lake Placid, where he raises grass-fed beef cattle for sale to the public and offers his historic land as an agritourism venue.