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Cows stir up dust on dry ground as they run on James Burton's farm on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in LaFayette, Ga. As the region's drought has worsened, Burton says he has used all of his stores of hay to feed his cattle and is now having to buy hay to keep his herd fed.

State and local agencies gathered last week in Northwest Georgia to talk to cattle producers about the possibility of bringing a beef processing facility to the area that could spur economic growth.

Agriculture in the state of Georgia is a $73.3 billion industry. The University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development estimates that one in seven people in Georgia work in agriculture, forestry or related fields.

A 2018 farm gate value report showed that there is a $29 million beef cattle industry in Dade, Walker, Chattooga, Catoosa, Whitfield, Murray and Gordon counties.

Walker and Gordon counties have the most estimated cattle with 10,000 in each county.

The report also found that beef in Georgia is about a $453 million industry. For those reasons, the state and other agencies have been looking for a way to make beef production a more cost-effective process.

Kent Wolfe is the director of the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development at UGA.

About a year ago, several statewide agencies and departments reached out to Wolfe and his department about producing a study to find out if a beef processing facility was needed in Georgia.

More specifically, the study would find out if one centrally located facility would benefit the industry and the state's economy more than having four smaller facilities spread out across the state.

After taking a year to interview nearly 300 cattle producers in the state, Wolfe and his team found out that a majority of producers were willing to drive up to 50 miles to process their own cattle if they could get a higher premium for their beef.

The study — sponsored in part by Farm Credit Associations of Georgia, Georgia Electric Membership Corporation, Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Department of Agriculture — showed that four regional facilities around the state could be a sufficient and cost-effective ways for producers to get the best price for their meat.

With the study finished, Wolfe and his team are traveling around the state to talk to local beef producers about a facility being built and to present the study's findings. The next meeting is Wednesday in Cartersville.

"I think there's a need for this," Wolfe said. "I think a lot of people are looking to the past at agriculture and it's what drove the state. Now there is a lot of momentum for projects like this."

Wolfe said the meeting will be a way for local beef producers to learn about the economic feasibility of a beef processing facility in the region and also how a facility could improve the local economy by creating direct and indirect jobs.

"A lot of these producers have to bring their cattle to a sale barn and they may not always be getting the best price for their meat," Wolfe said. "If they had their own facility in their region they can be making a premium return."

Wolfe said the region has a lot to benefit from a facility. He couldn't think of any reason why local producers wouldn't want a facility in Northwest Georgia, other than people not wanting the facility "in their backyard."

The meeting comes just weeks after the Dade County Commission put a temporary halt on permit applications for development amid concerns a chicken processing plant could be built in the county while the zoning ordinances are wide open.

Wolfe said the first meeting in Madison, Georgia, went well and that the discussions from local beef producers were mostly positive.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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