Seeing the Need
Michelle and Scott Hicks, owners of Cutting Edge Meat Company in Greene County
Extension guides meat processor launch
Story by Nathan Gregory • Photo by Kevin Hudson
Opening the right lines of communication is usually a prerequisite for anyone planning to start their own business.
Scott and Michelle Hicks would say it was a critical step in starting a meat-processing facility. Before they contacted lending firms and governing agencies, they reached out to the Mississippi State University Extension Service for guidance on executing their vision.
“It seemed that many processors didn’t have anyone to pass along their family business to or couldn’t sell their business, so they shut their doors,” Scott says. “We saw the need and started planning.”
Scott is an MSU graduate in civil engineering and manager of a gas storage facility, and Michelle is well versed in banking and insurance work.
“I knew Michelle and I had the experience from our work history to pull this project off,” Scott says. “I have dealt with several regulatory agencies and managed several projects in my career.”
They knew that being profitable in the cattle industry required the ability to control processing and have retail opportunities for their beef. They started researching U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements. The couple first reached out to their local Extension agent, Angie Byrd, in 2018.
“I knew Scott through our Cattlemen’s Association and farm visits I had conducted at his place, so I knew when he and Michelle called me that they were serious right off the bat,” Byrd says.
“Producers were having to call months in advance and drive 30 miles or more to have just one cow or hog processed. Scott saw this need locally for residents to be able to process their animals and felt that he had the resources to pursue it.
“He and Michelle put 100 percent into everything they do,” she adds, “so I knew when he called me that he would do everything he could to make it happen.”
Byrd contacted Extension state food-processing specialist Dr. Byron Williams, who organized a meeting with representatives of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) to discuss USDA requirements.
“Having developed a good relationship with the meat-inspection division of MDAC, it has worked well to include them on initial discussions with potential plant owners and operators to share ideas and answer inspection questions,” Williams explains.
2019 found the Hickses visiting meat-processing facilities and researching floor plans and equipment. The following year, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly halted food and forestry supply chains.
Demand from clients wanting to process their own animals forced appointments with some processing facilities out more than a year. While this encouraged the Hickses to move forward with their business plan, delivery delays, limited availability of various building materials, and increases in supply costs pushed back their launch to 2021.
While they waited, the couple checked another prerequisite off their list in 2020: getting the training they needed before they could open their doors. Extension also delivers Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification training, a required regulatory food-safety program for meat, poultry, and catfish processing facilities.
“MSU Extension played a very important role in advising and training,” Scott says. “We had countless conversations and emails with Dr. Williams regarding floor plans, expected costs, HACCP training, regulatory requirements, and equipment while Michelle and I were putting our business plan and projected financials together.”
The Hickses were able to start building their facility in September 2020, and Cutting Edge Meat Company opened in November 2021.
“We have exceeded the number of employees that we expected to have due to the demand for the service,” Scott says. “We planned very conservative numbers starting out, but the animals being processed have far exceeded our first year’s projected numbers.” Scott credits Williams and Byrd for being available to him in each phase of launching the operation.
“Angie made those initial connections between me and Dr. Williams,” he said. “That’s what is so amazing about Extension and proof of how important county offices are. When someone has a need, they find a way to fill it or help get answers they need to make the next step.”
Editor’s note: After this story was written, the Hickses sold Cutting Edge Meat Company to a new owner. The business continues its operations, employing local Mississippians in Greene County.