Shenandoah Valley Beef on the Menu at Washington Nationals Games

6/14/2014 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

It’s not a big contract, but it’s a high-profile one that puts Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative meat in a ballpark that had a paid attendance of more than 2.6 million in 2013.

“Everybody knows who the Washington Nationals are,” said Wade Hawkins, a beef cooperative member farming in Shenandoah County, Va.

Since the beginning of the baseball season, the co-op has been selling several whole animals per month to Levy Restaurants, which runs the concessions stands and restaurants at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The animals are processed at the Old Line Custom Meat Co. in Baltimore.

“So far, it seems to be going pretty well. They seem to be satisfied with what we’re sending, and it’s working out well for us,” said Tad Williams, a beef cooperative member who raises cattle on his farm in Rockingham County, Va. “We’ll see how this works out, and it may be something that will develop into a higher-volume relationship down the road.”

The initial contract with Levy Restaurants will be for one year, Williams said. According to a Washington Nationals news release from earlier this year, a new deal between the club and Levy Restaurants committed to expansion of a farm-to-table program at Nationals Park. Representatives of Levy Restaurants did not respond to interview requests.

Officially organized as a cooperative about three years ago, after several years of meetings and discussion, the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative now has about 20 members who collectively market their beef to consumers looking for high-quality, locally raised meat. Co-op members, including cow-calf, backgrounding and finishing operations, follow production guidelines that allow them to market their beef as “naturally raised,” meaning the cattle are not given any hormones, animal byproducts or antibiotics.

Each farmer who joins the co-op signs a marketing agreement to provide a certain number of animals over time, contingent on demand from customers. Producers are paid a premium over the USDA’s five-area weekly weighted-average direct slaughter report, and gain equity in the co-op with each sale they make. The group also tries to coordinate production among members to ensure it has a steady supply of finished cattle.

When the co-op launched, optimism was high that it could soon take advantage of growing demand for local, naturally raised farm products. As members have learned since, however, that demand doesn’t always quickly translate to sales.

“Patience was the key factor in getting our markets established,” said Hawkins, one of the few members of the co-op who finishes cattle. “There’s plenty of opportunity out there. It’s just a matter of getting the whole carcass sold.”

Sometimes, the cooperative has been able to pair middle-meats customers with ground-beef customers in order to move whole animals, although other potential deals have fallen through when a buyer was only interested in certain cuts. Because the group doesn’t have its own processing or storage facilities, Williams said the group is not set up to provide specific cuts.

Hawkins said the quality of the product speaks for itself — “when somebody eats it, they want more of it” — although finding the right price point has been tricky. Production volume has been another challenge as some interested buyers have wanted more beef than the co-op can regularly provide.

“I think folks were really jazzed and confident when we first got the thing going and I think there was just kind of the lull that took two to three years to work through, to figure out what the co-op was going to be and what it was going to try to do,” Williams said.

At the same time, with a core group of committed members, the cooperative has developed a number of regular customers and is now selling between 20 and 30 cattle per month, he said. Current customers include the Capital Meat Co., which supplies upscale restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, A Bowl of Good restaurant in Harrisonburg, Va., and Jake’s Bar and Grill in Waynesboro, Va.

Williams said the cooperative is always open to new members as it continues to develop relationships with new customers. And despite the ups and downs of the past several years, he said it “definitely feels really good” that the co-op has gone from just an idea to at least a modest success.

“It’s a struggle between wanting to really see this take off and become this really big thing and at the same time, you don’t want to take on too much risk,” he added.

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