Nobody wants to think about how an animal goes from roaming in a pasture to meat on a plate, let alone talk about the actual process. But for small-scale farmers (not to mention those that want to know where their food comes from), access to slaughterhouses and how meat is processed is crucial. Local meat isn’t local, after all, if livestock have to be driven miles away, or even to another state, for processing.
In Lynchburg, Va., Seven Hills Food has turned a century-old slaughterhouse into a $3 million, state-of-the-art, humane processing facility for Virginia-grown beef, hogs, lamb and goats. The 40,000-square-feet of brick, concrete and steel is a USDA-inspected facility capable of processing 75 to 100 cows or 300 to 400 hogs each day — filling a gap in the Chesapeake foodshed infrastructure and making local beef and pork more accessible to consumers and growers in the state. Intertwining the age-old art of butchery with modern software, Seven Hills can trace a carcass all the way down to a finished primal cut back to original lot it came from.
Owner and native Virginian Ryan Ford tells NationSwell that the idea behind Seven Hills Food started over a dinner table conversation about the difficultly of sourcing local meat. Turning a cow from a farm into a steak served at a restaurant can be a challenge. While the state’s abundant forage resources and topography is ideal for beef production, livestock farmers still have a hard time getting their product onto local places. That’s because, for food safety reasons, federal and state regulations require that red meat be cut in a USDA-inspected facility — something that Virginia has a real shortage of.
“We’re still trying to solve the same problem that existed for years,” Ford says about the lack of regional processing. “There’s a real bottleneck in that regard.”
Food that’s directly farm-to-table not only supports local farmers and processors, but it also cuts down on transportation and fuel usage, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment. A shorter distribution chain also means fresher food since it spends less time in a warehouse or in transit.
But in general, the days of mom-and-pop butcher shops have been replaced by the Big Four — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — that slaughter roughly 80 percent of the country’s cattle and can process 300 to 400 beef cows per hour. This consolidation of slaughterhouses meant that local butchering, like many other skilled-labor jobs in the U.S., became a dying trade. As Dr. Jonathan Campbell, associate professor and meat extension specialist at Penn State in University Park, explains, family-owned shops are going out of business because “they don’t have the labor force to keep up with changing demand and specialized markets.” The industry funnels a staggering $894 billion to country’s economy (about 6 percent of the GDP), and there’s even more growth potential in this market as emerging economies, such as China and India, demand more meat.
“The U.S. and other industrialized nations have been charged with the task of feeding the growing global population. And so it’s very difficult to do that with small, niche markets,” says Campbell, who helps advise Pennsylvanian meat companies on processing, food safety and cost-efficiency. Despite this, it is possible for an independent slaughterhouse to stay competitive in the meat market: by carving out specialized demand since they’re not driven by volume.
Seven Hills Food has been officially open for a month and currently has 15 employees. When asked about the challenges of running an independent slaughterhouse, Ford laughs, asking, “Do you have all day?”
“Every day is a challenge,” he says. “We’re starting from scratch. There are very few models to follow.”
Yet Ford remains ambitious about his goal of getting Virginians much closer to their food. “There’s an eighth generation family cattle business in the state of Virginia,” he says, referencing one of his clients. “As a consumer, wouldn’t you like to know that story?”
If you’re someone that cares about where your food comes from, it’s a tale worth hearing.