STAUNTON — For all the cattle raised in Augusta County, they sure don’t stick around.
Calves were sold, often in lots, at the Staunton Union Stock Yards Friday. Most of them will be sent to Pennsylvania or the Midwest, where there are enormous feedlots and meat processing facilities. The buyers there stand to make a bigger profit by finishing, processing and selling the beef.
“If the calves are born here, and we raise them to their full slaughter weight and have them processed and sold retail … there’s a better chance that we’ll be able to capture more of the consumer’s dollar and make us more economically sustainable,” said Tad Williams of the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative, “as opposed to relying on whatever someone may want to give us at a stockyard or a feedlot out West.”
He’s one of a growing number of Virginia cattlemen who would like to see more of the beef business stay in-state.
Another proposes building a McMillion dollar meat processing facility nearby.
They agree, however, that farmers will need to work together see more potential in the Virginia beef business if they’re going to prosper.
Swoope farmer Charlie Drumheller has big dreams for the Shenandoah Valley’s beef industry.
He hopes they’re realized in the form of a $13 million facility to be called the Shenandoah Valley Meat Processing Center, LLC. His dream includes a slaughterhouse, processing center and a commercial kitchen, all subject to inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Once it’s built and running in full swing, Drumheller hopes to process about 150 head of locally sourced cattle per day.
“We will purchase fed cattle, and there’s not a lot of people that are feeding cattle or finishing cattle in this area. There are some, and we hope to improve that,” said Drumheller.
Corn is far more expensive in Virginia than in the Midwest, and to finish cattle on grass takes more effort. There are few feedlots in the Shenandoah Valley, and they’re small. Still, when a farmer ships cattle West to be finished, he shoulders the transportation cost.
“We’re hoping by eliminating some of the transportation costs … that there’d be monies available to share with the farms well as for ourselves,” said Drumheller, adding that the beef raised and processed in Virginia could be sold at a premium because it was done locally.
Drumheller, who has decades of professional experience in meat processing and inspection, and business partner Tom Sikes originally intended to create a facility to export Virginia beef abroad, but their aspirations turned local with the market.
“People really, really want to support their local farmers and kinda wanna know where their food came from,” said Drumheller, who said he’s spoken with several school districts that expressed interest in buying pre-cooked beef from a local processor. “The market is there.”
But the funding isn’t; Drumheller said he and Sikes are beginning to look for investors. Nor do they have a location for the facility, although Drumheller said he hopes to break ground within the year.
For now, Drumheller is in negotiations with an independent meat processor and an independent commercial kitchen to get business started with a few school districts until the rest of the plan falls into place.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte is in Drumheller’s corner.
“We’ve been very interested in this project for probably … two years now, because it would create jobs in the Shenandoah Valley. It would enhance the profitability of raising beef cattle,” Goodlatte said. “The craze, you know, in food consumption these days is local food. This something we think would work very well.”
His office has been working with Drumheller to connect the project with the necessary information to get started, including developing plans and projections to meet USDA Rural Development’s standards and to seek government loans.
Tad Williams of the Shenandoah Beef Cooperative said his group is “encouraged” by Drumheller’s plan, but his constituents are concerned by a number of factors.
The facility will cost millions to build and has no confirmed investors yet. The country is in a recession. No locality has welcomed plans for the facility.
“A lot of people raise red flags when they hear there’s gonna be a slaughter facility built in their community,” Williams said. “They enjoy the benefits of farming and the great food that is produced by farmer but … they don’t wanna know about how it’s produced.”
Williams pointed out that the Allegheny Highlands Agricultural Center in Highland County, which expects to open a smaller processing facility than the one Drumheller proposes by September, has widespread community support, but spent years in the fundraising stage.
Such a facility is expressly prohibited within Waynesboro City limits, which Drumheller had previously considered for the location.
“So far there haven’t been any sites approved for the facility to be built yet. I think that may be some of the hindrance on investors’ part to put up money.”