Ryan Ford knows where the beef is, and good beef isn’t at the supermarket. He’s devoted the last few years of his life to reviving the concept of locally farmed meat in Virginia. To do that, he had to bring back a landmark building. I had the recent privilege of visiting Ryan and his team at this building and I left with an education most never get.
For 10 years a meat processing plant loomed large in the town of Lynchburg. Vandalized, dilapidated, and taking up space, the building found new life when Seven Hills Food president Ryan Ford found it. Instead of tearing it down, Ryan saw potential in the historic property and chose to renovate the purpose-built abattoir. In doing so, he not only revived a skilled trade but also became a much-needed partner for farmers and chefs throughout the MidAtlantic.
“It was a 20-month renovation, which included putting in a new electrical system,” explains Ryan. “We’ve taken this old plant and modernized it.”
Beyond giving life to an old building, Ryan was hoping to give new life to the farm to table movement in the Old Dominion State. While locally sourcing food has been popular for a few years, there are some limitations when it comes to proteins. Locally sourced proteins are frequently scarce or prohibitively expensive for many customers. Ryan and Seven Hills discovered solving the problem—how to get locally-raised beef on the plate—took more than just raising healthy animals on a local farm.
“You just can’t grow local proteins without processing,” says Ryan. “This has been the bottleneck that has existed and really prevented beef from being able to rise in the tide of local food.”
Clearing that bottleneck drove Seven Hills to restore the Lynchburg abattoir. Their ultimate goal, however, was to restore a system of meat production that’s been lost for decades.
Ryan tells me that “Around the 1960s, the industry consolidated.” And with that consolidation came lack of choice. Instead of getting to speak with the processing plants and get custom selections, purveyors were stuck with pre-chosen cuts of meat, vacuum packed and shipped from a plant somewhere across the country. “The industry has not only consolidated nationally, but globally.”
This consolidation meant that consumers didn’t have much choice when it came to cuts and quality. Living in Charlottesville, Ryan saw the demand for more and better options bloom firsthand as the local craft beer industry rapidly expanded. He noted that customers would seek out craft beer, because it offered them a chance to experience something beyond established brands. The principle of large conglomerates creating a desire for small market craft products applied to the meat industry as well. “The more that the beef industry consolidates, the more it creates opportunities for branded products that may appeal to customers looking for a choice.”
Part of that choice lies in the quality of the product. It wasn’t enough for Seven Hills to offer locally sourced protein, they wanted to ensure an unbeatable quality.
“We realized that there’s a demand for a high-quality local product that far exceeds the supply in the marketplace.”
So, Seven Hills met the demand by meeting with local cattle farmers. They talked to cattlemen, got a feel for how they raised their herds, and made deals to buy and process the meat themselves. Instead of sending their stock to anonymous, automated processing plants, farmers could sell to Seven Hills knowing their cows would be treated humanly and with care and would become part of a robust local food system. This became readily apparent just given the cleanliness of this facility. I was amazed at the time and care Ryan’s team took to ensure the place stayed so tidy.
“I think processors can get a bad rap sometimes,” says Ford. But while many people associate abattoirs with the less savory side of the meat industry, Ryan sees them as an essential part of saving the local food industry. “The connection between the farmer and the processor and the chefs or retailer are important. They can’t work independently.”
Seven Hills is poised to be the essential link that revives the local food chain. The company has focused on building their own regional supply chain. This allows for control over the product as well as the ability to guarantee its quality.
“If you want to know where your food comes from, then we’re the people you want to take a look at,” explains Ford. Instead of automating their processing plant, Seven Hills has gone the traditional route. While modernized plants can produce more food, their process is less personal. “We’re always going to be a people place, this is a place where tradesman will be harvesting beef, not machines.”
This traditional, skill-based approach means that Seven Hills can offer something many chefs and butchers were lacking for years: customization! Seven Hills welcomes special requests. If a customer wants a specific cut or a longer dry aging process, all they have to do is ask. Seven Hills dry-ages their meat in-house, an expensive process that guarantees quality and is rarely done in processing plants. Both their grass and grain finished product lines offer retailers and chefs a plethora of options when it comes to protein.
Hiring tradesmen to harvest beef the old-fashioned way also allows Seven Hills to focus their technology on something vital to their business model—traceability. Seven Hills knows where every cow comes from, allowing them to offer customers highly specific product options. If a restaurant wants a case of steaks from Charlottesville, Seven Hills can ensure that the diners are feasting on local beef.
Traceability also means Seven Hills can make changes to their lines if they need to.
“If we have a chef or a butcher that says, ‘Hey we got a case of steaks from you that were kind of tough,’ we can actually react to that,” says Ford. “We can go to the producer. It gives you a really good chance to create the highest quality beef in the long run.”
Producers are responding to Seven Hills’ hands-on approach by investing themselves. They’re expanding their facilities to get Seven Hills the finished cattle they need. With this business model, Seven Hills offers consumers and chefs in the MidAtlantic a new beef industry, with better, locally sourced protein.
“I think there’s excitement for everyone about the opportunity to create a branded Virginia beef line.” It’s Ryan’s hope that Seven Hills can lead the way in a local protein revolution. He envisions a world where local processing can change what it means to order a steak at a restaurant.
“Whether the customer is a chef, or the guest of a chef in a restaurant, knowing that you’re two handshakes away from a live Angus beef steer on a Virginia farm is a powerful thing.”