They couldn’t move soybean markets closer or push the price higher, so farmers in four Eastern North Carolina counties took matters into their own hands: They are creating their own market and hoping to get bigger bucks for their beans. East Carolina Soy Processors LLC expects to process a million bushels within a year at its $5.4 million plant in Hyde County, says H.A. Respass, a founder and board member. “That might not seem like much in Charlotte or Raleigh, but down here, where you only see a house every 20 miles, it looks pretty big for a bunch of farmers.”
Respass, who farms about 6,000 acres near Plymouth, says the idea was planted about five years ago when farmers — most of them in Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties — began trying to cut the costs of hauling soybeans to the nearest processing plants, 50 miles away in Cofield and 150 miles away in Raleigh. Prices are based on national markets, but farmers take a hit when local buyers take a cut.
They got a break in 2004 when Seymour, Ind.-based Rose Acre Farms Inc. built a $55 million egg plant in Hyde County. Its 4 million hens eat lots of soybean meal. “They’re the second-largest eggproducer in the U.S., and they’re located within a couple of miles of our plant,” Respass says. Rose Acre invested in East Carolina Soy — it owns less than 10% — with 39 farmers and agribusiness owners.
The plant can store about 180,000 bushels of soybeans and produce more than 22,000 tons of meal a year. “We’ll be selling the meal, oil and hulls. Oil is a small percentage, but it’s used for food, and it’s very valuable. The hulls will be used for livestock feed.”
Startup hasn’t been easy. The Hyde County fire marshal barred the plant from storing oil in its four 20,000-gallon tanks unless it installed a $100,000 sprinkler system. It spent $24,000 to move the tanks outside instead. The business plan assumed soybeans could be bought for $6 a bushel, but the price soared to $16, then settled at about $9.
East Carolina Soy expects to convert about $9 million of soybeans into sales of $15 million to $20 million this year. At full production, it will employ seven. Owners already are thinking about tapping the consumer market. “We need to sell the meal — that’s our bread and butter,” Respass says. “But we’d also like to make a specialized low-saturated-fat oil that we’d bottle ourselves.“
Doubling their odds
Think of LandsEast Industrial Park in Pitt and Martin counties as a testament to the principle of sharing. “We’ve all learned over the years if our neighbors aren’t prosperous, we aren’t prosperous,” says Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission. The 788-acre industrial park is the first in the state to straddle two economic-development partnerships — Eastern and Northeast. It pairs a growing county with one that’s struggling. East Carolina University has buoyed Pitt, while farm woes have bruised Martin. LandsEast, near Bethel, will have rail service, which Pitt has lacked. Martin has more available land and, because of its weaker economy, can offer state tax breaks not available in Pitt. The park will be ready for a tenant in about a year.