Consumers seek locally raised beef as farmers and processors try to keep pace with demand

Cow grazing

LYNCHBURG — The good news is: There’s enough capacity statewide to process the 14,000 head of beef cattle finished in Virginia annually.

The bad news is: Long travel distances and labor shortages, plus an ongoing processing backlog exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have created industry challenges as consumers increasingly clamor for locally sourced foods.

Nationwide, rising market prices are driven by sustained demand and a dip in inventory.

“Cattle prices are at or around record highs, so revenue is up for producers,” said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation at Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “But their inputs are more expensive with market-wide inflation, so profit is not increasing proportionally.”

When grocery meat cases emptied during COVID-19, a swell of interest in locally raised beef was curbed by processing backlogs.

Caroline County cow-calf operators Peggy and David Spicer of Willow Hill Farms & Beef went from a three-week turnaround to booking their trusted area processor a year in advance.

“And a cancellation throws everything in a kink with a domino effect,” Peggy said. “You have cattle trailers lined up, people taking off work, and then there are customers we promised beef to, which is now not ready. You lose sales that way. It’s a huge ripple effect.”

Following restaurant shutdowns, Kroger corporate requested 50,000 pounds of fresh beef per week from the state’s largest processor, Seven Hills Food Co. in Lynchburg. The town’s laid-off restaurant staff was hired to process 150 head of cattle a week, said president Dalton Mosser.

Now, The Virginia Beef Co. retail brand is sold in 100 Kroger stores, and Seven Hills’ diamond logo is listed on restaurant menus from Roanoke to D.C. With more capital investment, Seven Hills has the capacity to process 500 head weekly.

While there’s space for 60 workers, they hover around 40. During the pandemic, “we lost scores of hardworking guys,” Mosser lamented. 

Government meat inspectors also are understaffed, he noted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Strategic Plan says it will continue to address frontline staffing shortages.

As market forces play out, new legislative initiatives address the need to study processing expansion at home.

HB 830, introduced by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, was approved by the governor in April 2022 to expand and develop slaughter and meat-processing facilities through strategic planning and financial incentive programs.

“But it doesn’t do you any good to expand if you can’t find the people to work,” Wilt acknowledged. “The need for more processing is there, but we must connect the dots.”



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