As Philip and Hollee Terry and their three kids put the finishing touches on a radiant rising sun at the center of a new mural on the west side of their shop, they had no idea how brightly the future would dawn for Big Country Meats.
Last year, the blank space was transformed into an eye-catching scene that pays tribute to the Chisholm Trail. The striking portrait of a Longhorn steer was part of a citywide beautification campaign launched by Hive Appeal, a unique promotional company owned by local artists Ty and Kelly Tompkins.
Now, Enid Packing Co., the parent company and processing arm of the business, is working on expanding, as new customers stream through the doors of their retail outlet and small plants like theirs get renewed attention at the highest levels of state and federal government.
“We’re hoping the shift in consumer behavior is here to stay,” said Hollee Terry, daughter of Carl Lightfield, the company’s founder.
A broad consensus has emerged within the livestock industry that the U.S. needs more packing capacity, and any expansion likely is to come in the form of more small- to mid-sized plants. Small plants are seen as a way to make the meat industry less vulnerable to extreme events.
Most small processors already are scheduled out months in advance and sometimes forced to turn business away. Enid Packing supplies ground beef to a few locally owned burger establishments, but around half their business comes from area producers in need of custom slaughtering services.
“We have lots of farmers that are selling meat now and calling us booking kill dates. It’s really been a boon for local cattle,” Terry said.
But there’s a catch: Capacity is limited.
“Prior to COVID, the local ranchers could get their animals in within a week or two, and we were able to accommodate emergencies and also wild game and deer season,” Terry said. “Due to COVID-19, we don’t have the room. Demand has increased, and we are operating at max capacity.”
When grocery store shelves emptied for a brief period in April, shoppers came to them seeking an alterative.
“People were really genuinely scared, but we were able to assuage some of the fear because we owned the whole supply from beginning to end,” Terry said.
Around that same time, the Oklahoma Youth Expo was canceled midway through the show.
“All of those animals needed to be slaughtered,” she said. “The fact is there are very few slaughterhouses that will do it, and we were trying to help the kids.”
Workdays at the plant have been long and grueling ever since. Hollee’s husband, a certified plumbing and construction contractor, moved routine maintenance to Sundays to free up as much time as possible to slaughter more animals. But they never ran out of ground beef, despite a tripling of demand.
“We never changed what we ground, never compromised on any of it, and that’s a testament to our amazing staff and our amazing network of farmers,” Terry said.
State grants to the rescue
When demand surged, small meat plants everywhere went into overdrive, and many states have now stepped in to support them.
Oklahoma directed $10 million of $141 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (or CARES) funds to small meat processors, with Enid Packing receiving $350,000.
“I couldn’t believe it. I really thought they missed a decimal point somewhere,” Terry said. “I did not expect it, just because it’s like winning the lottery. When you buy a lotto ticket, do you expect to get it?”
Though money was distributed to all corners of the state, it was still a selective process. Only 41 out of 190 applicants received funding.
One thing that impressed Terry is how quickly the money became available, within a couple of weeks. As a former grant manager in grad school, she knows how unusual that can be.
“It was lightning quick. Everything was upended (by the pandemic) so for them to move that kind of money around that fast is remarkable,” she said. “They wanted the people of Oklahoma not to have to worry. They really did an excellent job of spending the money to benefit the most people.”
Oklahoma might be behind the coasts in picking up on the artisan-butchering trend, but the state emerged as a leader in addressing the butchering backlog, she said.
With the grant, they plan to at least double, and possibly triple, their current five-head-a-day capacity.
“We already own the block and a half between the kill house and the store, and that’s where we’re putting a new facility with two dedicated processing rooms, additional coolers and a smokehouse,” she said. “We would like to double our staff size. Right now we have 10 employees.”
Benefits of the expansion will flow into the local community, Terry said.
“In the long term, I see a health benefit to people eating more natural meats,” she said. “We cure our own bacon, hams and sausages, and you’re not getting all of the preservatives.”
Like many small processors, Enid Packing has been integral to the community for many years.
“We are very large supporters and donors to local food banks, with thousands and thousands of pounds donated through programs we sponsor,” she said. Among them is “Hunters against Hunger,” which distributes wild game meat to those in need.
The tradition of giving was started by Hollee’s dad. The couple took over the business when he passed away in 2018.
Though he was what she calls “a low-key guy,” and not one to toot his own horn, Lightfield loved his local community and had a special way of instilling life lessons that couldn’t be learned in a book.
When she told him how thrilled she was to get her first car at age 16, he warned her, “don’t ever love anything that can’t love you back.” If she complained about not having the same stuff her friends had, he was quick with a comeback.
“Evidently you need poorer friends,” he’d joke.
When she came in to help around the store, he set high standards that have stood her well throughout her career.
“No matter where you go, always wash the floors like you own the place,” he told her.
She can’t help thinking now how thrilled he would be to see the reaction of customers, the brisk sales and the big expansion underway.
The new mural is a constant reminder of his presence.
The image — modeled on a real-life longhorn steer named Twister — also includes a swallow-tailed flycatcher, the state bird, perched on one of the sweeping horns. The two animals share a symbiotic relationship, just as Terry’s parents did as they ran the business together for more than two decades.
“We like to say it’s Mom and Dad hanging out with us,” Terry said.
Candace Krebs – Freelance Writer