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Barney Wilborn

Lambert-Powell Meats Laboratory manager
College of Agriculture

Birmingham native Barney Wilborn admits he knew next to nothing about cattle or hogs or agriculture in general when he came to Auburn as a freshman in 1996 to major in animal sciences. Some who knew him probably doubted that would last, but Wilborn proved them wrong when he earned his bachelor's degree in 2000 and then again when he graduated with a master's in animal sciences two years later. His first job out of Auburn was as a food scientist with the Cargill Meat Solutions Research and Development Center in Wichita, but in 2005, he and wife Robyn - a match made at Camp War Eagle in the summer of '96 when she, a junior in animal sciences, was his CWE counselor - returned to The Loveliest Village for his job as manager of the university's then-brand-new, state-of-the-art Lambert-Powell Meats Lab on Shug Jordan Parkway near Wire Road. As manager, Wilborn is responsible for ensuring that the lab's meat-processing rooms, demonstration kitchen and classroom area, conference room and retail sales room are equipped and ready for the numerous research, teaching and outreach activities that take place day in and day out. Wilborn and his wife, an Auburn animal sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine alumna who is now an assistant professor at the CVM and co-director of the Equine Reproduction Unit, have two daughters, both under 2.

1. What is the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab at Auburn University all about?

The meats lab is named for the late Ernest Lambert, who was a leader in Alabama's beef industry, and Alabama Cattlemen's Association Executive Director Billy Powell and is part of the Department of Animal Sciences within the College of Agriculture. Our mission here is to support the department's research, teaching and extension activities as they relate to the food end of animal production. The department operates a beef farm and a hog farm right on campus, and when animals used in production research on the farms are harvested, they're processed here so their carcasses can be evaluated, and then we sell the meat products in our retail sales room. On the teaching side, our students are at Auburn to learn the science of raising cattle, hogs, sheep and goats for food, and several of their courses have hands-on labs that are conducted in our building. We also host a lot of extension programs for producers, groups from local schools, folks in the industry, veterinarians and USDA personnel.

2. If the meat that's sold at the lab is from animals used for research purposes, how can it be safe to eat?

The research that's done here focuses for the most part on finding the best ways to raise food animals, and a majority of our work involves evaluating different types of diets and management systems, so the products from our animals are actually on the cutting edge of quality and safety. Also, our facilities are fully inspected, and all of the products available in our retail sales room are produced under inspection and certified as wholesome and safe to eat. If there's a case where one of our researchers is investigating a feed ingredient or pharmaceutical product that hasn't been approved for use in food animals, we don't sell the meat from those animals.

3. How does the Meat Lab's retail sales room work?

The sales room is open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays. We always have a good selection of reasonably priced fresh beef and pork products, plus bacon, smoked sausages and smoked ham, and on occasion, we'll have other products like pork barbecue or smoked brisket. Probably our most popular item is our bacon, but you have to time it just right to find it here because we make it using a very traditional process that takes 14 days, and when we do have it, it goes in a hurry. We commonly sell out in two or three days.

Our gross monthly sales average around $15,000, which is pretty good for a university-based meats lab but a drop in the bucket compared to a meat market in a grocery store. All the money is used to buy animals and to pay our workers. There is rarely anything left over, but if there is, we spend it on equipment repairs or extra student labor so that they get as much experience as possible.

4. What's your reaction when you hear Auburn referred to as a "cow college"?

Personally, I love it. It's kind of like when people who are not from this part of the country assume that we are all down here running around barefoot with ringworm. It can be our little secret that this is one of the best places in the country to go to school. One of my best friends from back home went to the University of Alabama and loves to give me a hard time about the "cow college," but to me, it's a source of pride. I am terribly proud of Auburn's heritage in agriculture.

5. Back to your choice of majors: How did a city boy wind up in animal agriculture?

I didn't grow up around livestock, but some of my close friends had farms, and that's where my interest started. My family had been in the construction business in Birmingham since 1926, and I felt drawn toward the family tradition, but I really wanted to know more about the livestock industry, and that led me to animal sciences. These days, a lot of kids in animal sciences are from the city, but that wasn't the case in 1996. When I got here, I felt like all the other students had a ton of farm experience while I didn't have any, and I got a little apprehensive about things. But then somebody put up a sign about joining the department's meats judging team, and it said, "No experience required." I still remember how those words grabbed me. I was in. My experience on the meats team convinced me that the meat industry held real promise, and the more we worked in meat plants, the more I saw a workplace filled with opportunities and stability. I got my undergrad, and my mentors at the time convinced me that a master's degree in the field would make a real difference in the workplace. They were right.

June 11, 2012