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875-job beef processing plant planned in North Platte
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875-job beef processing plant planned in North Platte

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NORTH PLATTE — North Platte leaders and Nebraska cattle groups Thursday unveiled plans for a nearly $300 million beef processing plant on a former sewer lagoon near the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

If completed as planned by early 2023, Sustainable Beef LLC’s 875-employee plant would be North Platte’s largest new employer since the 2003 dedication of the Walmart Distribution Center.

About 100 people packed the Prairie Arts Center’s second-floor conference room as David Briggs of Alliance, CEO of both Westco Cooperative and Sustainable Beef, outlined a project months in the making.

He said the plant, which would process 400,000 head of cattle a year, could pump up to $1 billion annually into Lincoln County while offering producers new profit opportunities and addressing nationwide supply issues exposed by COVID-19.

In addition to the plant’s direct payroll, he said, “ancillary businesses” to support the plant and its workers could raise the county’s potential job gain to about 2,000.

Mayor Brandon Kelliher and County Board Chairman Kent Weems both cheered the project and what it could mean locally.

“This is quite an exciting day for our community, because we’re going to hear about an economic opportunity like we have not seen for many, many, many years,” Kelliher said in opening the news conference.

“We’re looking for diversity in this community in the private sector, and we know we can’t rely on one employer,” Weems said, referring to the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard.

“This looks like a way to turn the corner.”

The city would sell the now tax-exempt former lagoon site for the beef plant — one of several reasons Gary Person, president and CEO of the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp., offered for why the proposal fits North Platte like a glove.

Briggs and other Sustainable Beef organizers were considering other communities before North Platte hit upon the idea of putting it right next to the sewer plant, Person added.

“It took a bit of warming up — ‘You’re going to build it where?’” he said. But “it’s just the perfect place to do it.”

The nearest homes lie south of the South Platte River and northwest of the wastewater plant. “It’s on the downwind side of town, a mile from the interstate,” Briggs said.

Briggs and McPherson County rancher Rusty Kemp, another firm co-organizer, said last spring’s pandemic-related supply shortages — on the heels of an August 2019 fire that disabled a major Kansas beef plant — helped spark their project.

Briggs gave credit for the plant’s genesis to Kemp, who was part of a Vietnamese trade mission about that time with Gov. Pete Ricketts that drove home the high worldwide reputation that Nebraska beef enjoys.

He then reached out to Briggs and others in “a team of men and women with Nebraska ties or are from Nebraska,” Kemp said.

“They’re tough enough, they’re smart enough, and they’ve got the fortitude to see this project through to the end.”

Five former top employees of Cargill Inc.’s beef plants also are among Sustainable Beef’s backers and advisers, Briggs added.

Sustainable Beef’s plant would be one of the few sizable ones built in the U.S. in half a century, Briggs said. About 30% of its production would be sold internationally.

The firm has been organized on a “modified cooperative” model, he said, with cattle producers who subscribe their beef for slaughter in North Platte also receiving profits from their sale.

Sustainable Beef has been reaching out to about 40 feedlots and their associated cattle growers over a 200-mile radius from the Wyoming border to about York, Briggs said.

Its payroll size and production would both be about one-fourth of the Tyson Foods plant at Lexington, which opened three decades ago in a converted Sperry New Holland manufacturing plant.

But Briggs said the plant’s pay would average about $50,000 a year before benefits for line workers, who would work 40 hours a week.

The plant will be a “single-shift” day operation, unlike larger two-shift plants, he added. About 75 of Sustainable Beef’s estimated 875 employees would be supervisors or managers, with the firm’s top officers living in or near North Platte.

Briggs stressed that his firm will make use of expert advisers and the latest technologies for efficiently processing cattle, controlling odors and limiting environmental impacts.

For example, Kemp said, the firm expects to capture its cattle’s methane emissions to supply 70% to 80% of the plant’s power.

He added that the thermal oxidizers and scrubbers planned for the plant’s odor control will cost $4 million to $5 million alone.

“We don’t spend that amount of money on something that doesn’t work,” he said.

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