Circle C Farm, Local farm plans full-service USDA facility, News Press

As Southwest Florida farmers cash out to real estate developers, a Felda couple is building their farm’s future in ethically harvesting, as well as raising, quality meats.

Nicole Kozak and Manny Cruz first carved a niche for Circle C Farm in free-ranging, organically-raised, GMO-free poultry. Starting in 2010, they put some 1,500 laying hens on their Bonita Springs property, and last year got USDA-certified to harvest their birds.

Now they’re hatching a 6,000-square-foot USDA-inspected facility on Circle C’s Felda acreage, just north of Immokalee, that would be a first of its kind for Florida – able to harvest and butcher livestock of any kind.

Not only will the couple be able to harvest their own cows, heritage hogs and lambs, as well as birds, humanely, without trucking them to far-flung places; so will others who want to bring their livestock to Felda for a one-stop service; from large outfits to the family with 4-H kids who’ve raised one or two steer.

“I think there’s a felt need for a high-quality processing center in our region that Circle C could fill,” said Vanessa Bielema, a University of Florida ag extension agent dedicated to sustainable food systems. “Almost every small livestock farmer I talk to either has access issues with distance to processing facilities, or is dissatisfied with the quality they get back.”

Since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, slaughterhouses have been associated with cruel and unclean practices in the quest for maximum profit. But a tide of small farmers is pushing back.

“Small farmers take pride in raising their animals, and they want to see the process finished in a humane, satisfying way,” Bielema said.

More than 80 percent of Florida’s farms, livestock and otherwise, are modest, family-owned affairs, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture, a pattern repeated across the country.

“How we handle animals is very gentle,” Kozak said. “We spend a lot of time, energy and money to make sure they’re cared for, and it shows in the quality of the meat.” 

On a recent tour of her Felda spread, young lambs tested their legs in a Bahiagrass field; the third generation the couple has bred from a cross of Florida Cracker rams with White Dorper and Katahdin ewes to resist disease – no antibiotics need apply.

In another pasture, Red and Black Angus munched on spent grains, delivered twice a week from Fort Myers Brewing Company, while a flock of white broilers waddled up the road to check out the visitors.   

Being a harvest day, the birds were lifted in small numbers by hand onto a flat-bed trailer, where they puttered, unafraid up to the instant a knife severed the carotid arteries; a one-minute process.

“Some facilities stack the animals, make them wait for hours, and stun or decapitate them,” Kozak explained. “The adrenaline flowing through their bodies can taint the quality of the meat.” 

Over the resistance of industrial farmers, conscientious consumers and chefs are fueling the market for "clean meats," according to a November Nielsen study. 

“Six months of a good life and one bad day. It does make a difference,” said Corrinna Hensley, who breeds and raises Yorkshire and Duroc hogs on Lucky Diamond Ranchin Fort Myers.

Demand for her pork is so high that Hensley doesn’t need a farmer’s market to promote it, she says -- it sells itself by word of mouth.

“I’m very excited about Circle C’s project because it would give us a place that does it all in the local area,” said Hensley, who currently takes her animals to separate USDA-inspected slaughter and butchering facilities before the meat can be sold.

On top of that, “A lot of places only do beef and pork, so you have to go elsewhere to harvest lamb or chicken,” she added. “Circle C would be an all-meat facility.”

Of 24 USDA-inspected facilities around the state, only 10 process all kinds of red meat, and none do red and white, according to a University of Florida agriculture extension list of companies.

Families across Glades, Hendry, Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties who just want to raise meat for themselves would also be able to use the Circle C plant on weekends.

“Someone you can trust to respect the animal as you do would be amazing,” said Angela Kuckes, whose children raise a 4-H steer every year on Rafter KV Ranch in Bonita Springs. “So you don’t have to wonder, if they’re doing a large number, did you get everything? Did it get mixed up?”

Getting banks to finance the $2.3 million Circle C facility is just one of the challenges.

“Banks don’t understand agriculture, so they don't know farming can pay for itself,” Kozak said.

Her business plan uses USDA data to show the service gap for small-scale farmers all over the state, whose infrastructure has gone by the wayside as the big farms consolidate.

“Most folks at this size don’t have the resources to take it on, but Nicole is great at that," extension agent Bielema said. "She's a real go-getter."

Follow this reporter on Twitter @PatriciaBorns.

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