Big plans for meat plant take shape

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As a lifelong hockey player, Vincent Estell knows well when it's time to pass the puck and when to shoot for the net.

Those lessons will serve Estell well as he moves forward with plans to construct a meat processing plant north of Yerington that potentially could become the largest employer in Lyon County.

The Walker River Meat Processing plant will process four types of livestock all the way from initial harvesting to custom packaging and shipping of choice meats.

"We aren't building a slaughter plant, we are building a meat-processing plant," Estell says.

Estell, chief executive officer of Walker River Meat Processing, plans to break ground next spring on a 300,000-square-foot facility that will process cattle, pigs, sheep and goats.

The plant consists of three buildings located approximately 1,000 feet apart to avoid the possibility of cross contamination. The facility is located on 1,725 acres of land at Wabuska in Lyon County, which leaves plenty of room for Walker River Meat Processing to raise herds of cattle and drifts of pigs once the plant is in full operation.

Verdi-based Sierra Builders has been retained as design/build general contractor, and WB Clausen Structural Engineers of Emeryville, Calif., is the structural engineer.

The meat processing facility will draw livestock for processing from a 1,000-mile radius, Estell says, which extends its reach as far north as Canada and includes the entire western region and even Texas.

The facility will be constructed to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and the even more-stringent European Union Food Regulations and Standards, Estell says, which will allow participating ranchers to sell their products internationally as well as domestically.

"That gives us the opportunity to market our products to any place in the world," Estell says.

"We are not held up trying to ship to foreign markets." Contracts already are in the works to process more than 200,000 head of cattle beginning in 2013 when the plant comes on line.

When operating at full

capacity, the plant is expected to process up to 2,000 head of cattle, 2,500 pigs and 1,000 sheep and goat each day. To get to those numbers, Estell says, Walker River Meat Processing must build a network of meat producers, and it also will raise its own cattle and pigs for processing.

Though the estimated cost for the facility is in excess of $100 million, Estell says funding has not proved difficult to secure, and he has several capitalization scenarios lined up.

"Funding is relative to how much equity is built into a project," he says confidently. "We are working through several different scenarios that all look like 100 percent capitalization."

Although market prices for cattle and hogs are on a bull run - both are up around 10 percent or more this year in Chicago futures trading - Estell isn't banking on any recent runups in price to boost the project's success. Processing cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and even buffalo at the facility allows Walker River Meat Processing to avoid cyclical market swings and mitigate impacts from downturns in any one species.

Walker River Meat Processing plans to offset some of its operating costs through a partnership with Homestretch Geothermal, a neighboring geothermal operator. The facility will require 140-degree hot water for wash-down activities, and 180-degree water for cleaning and sterilization of all tools.

Integrating geothermal technology into the facility's operations doesn't pose as much of a problem as does ensuring that all the water used at the facility - up to 1 million gallons a day - is potable, says Kers Clausen, a structural engineer with WB Clausen Engineers. Designing meat plants is one of the firm's specialties - it's done between 300 and 400, Clausen says. Clausen himself has designed about 30 plants.

"This will probably be the largest meat processing facility in the western states when we get done," he says.

The large volume of wastewater will be used for irrigating crops around the facility, Clausen says.

One of the challenges for the construction team is blending a mix of hybrid building technologies. The three harvesting areas will be made from pre-cast concrete panels, while other parts of the facility will be made from pre-fabricated steel.

Estell says he chose the Mason Valley for several reasons:

• Availability of geothermal hot water

• Proximity of natural gas pipeline

• Proximity of rail line and highway transportation

• Readily available feed with region's strong agricultural background

• Willingness of Lyon County officials and City of Yerington to advance the project.

Rob Hooper, executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority, says the proposed meat processing facility is a natural fit for the Mason Valley.

"This type of project supports the agrarian economy in Lyon County," he says. "It has a lot of agriculture, and as we add value to agriculture it creates a lot of economic benefit.

We need to have more processing done in the county. We need to have that step in the food chain happening here. It is going to provide jobs and improve the tax base."

Raised in Western Canada and a current resident of Modesto, Estell readily acknowledges he doesn't have a cattleman's or rancher's background. He does, however, have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the foresight to hire industry experts to help make the machine hum smoothly.

"I have always been a team player - I learned that when I played hockey as a kid. There is always a player to fill a slot. I comb the market to find the right parts to make it work. I have the baton, and I make the music.

"I live and breathe my projects, and I have an absolute passion for anything I take on," Estell adds. "I surround myself with people that also develop that passion."


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