By Sarah Mansheim
Grazing cattle in Greenbrier County are so predominant, they’re almost part of the landscape. As we drive on Rt. 219 and Rt. 60, or along any of the back roads that wind around the mountains, we may remark on the cattle on the hillsides or look beyond them hardly noticing them at all. But, folks would do well to look closer, because every one of those cows has a price on its head, and beef cattle production in Greenbrier County is a major industry, bringing millions of dollars into the local economy.
According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Buddy Davidson, livestock sales in Greenbrier County equaled $74.6 million in the 2012 census of agriculture, and he says the majority of those dollars are from cattle. That’s 97 percent of the market value of products sold in the state.
“It is substantial. Greenbrier County is number one in West Virginia in beef production,” says Davidson. “You’re looking at an area where there are a lot of agricultural traditions.”
Davidson says most Greenbrier farmers sell their beef cattle at auction. Those cattle, usually about a year old or less, are then shipped off to the Midwest to be “finished,” or “fattened up at the feed lot” with grain. “The goal is to get them close to a processing center,” he says.
“If you own some land, you can make some money,” he says. The average net cash farm income in Greenbrier County is $15,000, which can translate to “a new truck every other year from the local car dealer. This money circulates in the community which would otherwise go somewhere else.”
Commercial marketing of beef cattle is the more popular way of doing business in Greenbrier County, but other farmers take the direct marketing approach by finishing their cattle on their farms and then selling the beef directly to their customers.
Jennifer “Tootie” Jones of Swift Level Farm in Lewisburg is one of those farmers. Jones recently was awarded second place in the State Conservation Farm of the Year for her 192 acres and 80 head of cattle.
“I purchase calves every fall from a local farm,” Jones says, lately about 40 at a time. “This year is a big year for cattle. Prices are way up which is great if you’re selling them, but maybe not so great if you’re buying them.”
Jones finishes her cattle herself, taking about two years per animal and feeds them a diet of grass and hay grown on her farm.
The cows are only slaughtered when Jones deems them “carcass ready.” Jones’ cattle are processed in Rich Creek, VA, and she is now looking at another processing plant in Lexington, VA. “I take them three or four at a time, about six or eight a month.”
“The market is growing,” she says. Jones sells to some larger customers such as butcher shops that take the whole animal. She also sells to restaurants, whose requirements force her to plan for each one’s needs.
“I’m learning how to stockpile for restaurants by looking at their seasonal rhythms,” Jones says, meaning restaurants in different regions have different needs throughout the year: a restaurant at Snowshoe is going to need more food during the winter than one in Lewisburg, for instance.
Diversifying her market stream is key, says Jones, who says she focuses on restaurants, retail, farmers markets and on-site sales.
Jones acknowledges that a lot of farmers simply cannot do direct marketing–many owe money on land and equipment (“Those tractors are $50,000,” she says.), so they often go the commercial route.
“Over 10,000 cattle are shipped out of Greenbrier County every fall,” she says, but notes that local sources are permeating the market slowly but surely.
“I hope our community is going to a place where we can sell food seven days a week,” Jones says; she thinks it can be done by developing a marketing strategy where farmers can afford to farm full time.
“There are great farmers in the area. It’s a passion-driven industry. It was freezing cold this morning, and farmers across the county were out checking their cattle. Farmers are nurturers; they care about the land and they care about the animals,” she says. “The next step is to figure out how can we feed the people of West Virginia on a large scale.”
Davidson agrees. “West Virginia could be producing a lot more of the food that we eat,” he says.