Virginia beef industry eyes rising market across China
LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ryan Ford purchased an old meat processing facility in Lynchburg in 2015 with the hope of capitalizing on regional beef producers’ desire for a local processor. He named it Seven Hills Food Company, and in the first year, he said he was processing 20 to 25 head a week.
It’s been a fast rise. Today, Ford said he’s processing 500 head a week, making him one of the largest processors in the Mid-Atlantic. He’s built a wholesale meat business that serves a growing list of restaurants across the region. The facility has plenty of room to expand. He just needs to sell more meat.
He said he’s looking to China.
Ford was one of several Virginians who traveled to China last month as part of a trade mission sponsored by the state and the USDA. The group visited Guangzhou and Shenzhen in southeast China from May 21-25. Ford said he was looking for potential partners to expand his business.
“Those two cities, just massive scale. Massive,” he said. “There’s a consumer demand there for high-quality products. U.S. beef has a worldwide reputation for being one of the best if not the best. And for being safe. They trust ‘Made in the USA.’”
Seth Umbarger, a Smyth County cattleman, also attended the trip. After several years of selling top-quality live cattle to a middleman who resold the beef to the Whole Foods grocery chain, Umbarger is searching for ways to expand his operation, possibly overseas.
He learned that China had lifted import restrictions on American beef earlier this year and contacted the international marketing office at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inquire about exporting Virginia beef to China. That started a conversation that led to Umbarger joining a late- May trade mission to China, which was sponsored by VDACS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It was the chance of a lifetime,” Umbarger told the Farm Bureau. “I’m trying real hard for my wife and I to stay here on the farm and work, and not have an off-farm job. We both have agriculture degrees; she has a retail store here on the farm selling our beef; and we divide and conquer to attend farmers’ markets on the weekends.
“But there’s only so much demand here for local beef.”
He used the trip to China as a “discovery mission to see what kind of beef cuts and what quantities the Chinese buyers were looking for. No one was able to answer these questions here, so I just went and asked. There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings sometimes in international trade.”
China is the No. 1 importer of Virginia food and forestry products. As of March 2018 the U.S. had exported $15.8 million in beef to China in the past year, according to VDACS.
Ford said he’s in the process of implementing a new ear tagging system required by Chinese regulators so they can trace an animal all the way back to its farm. He’s met with his farmers and the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, who are amenable to the plan.
His business is probably six months to a year away from being ready to finalize any deals with Chinese buyers, he said. But eventually he said he could see Seven Hills — and other Virginia beef producers — succeeding across the Far East.
“I think we can develop a Virginia brand,” he said. “We’re not going to produce as much beef as some of the Midwest states, but I think we’ve got a shot to produce as high quality beef as anybody.”
The Virginia Farm Bureau contributed to this story.
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