Pasture to plate: New Facility Moves Meat from Farm to Table

October 27, 2015 04:11 PM

Seven Hills Food Company had its grand opening just off Campbell Avenue by the Lynchburg Expressway and will process Virginia meats for Virginians exclusively.

The plant employs 15 people, but that number is expected to increase to nearly 45.

"We're an end-point for the grower," said Ryan Ford, owner of the company and The Organic Butcher, a meat shop in Charlottesville and McLean. "Our job is really to cement the customer to state-grade cattle."

Local agricultural agents said the meat facility, at about 40,000 square feet, likely is the biggest in the state and opens options for Virginia farmers.

"There is sort of a bottle neck to get (meat) processed," said Kevin Camm, agricultural agent for Lynchburg.

Other facilities in the area are small, said Scott Baker, agricultural agent for Bedford County.

With that bottleneck, demand for another meat processor was there.

"As the industry consolidates, it opens up opportunities for a differentiated product," Ford said. That product is home-grown Virginia beef.

"It's very similar to the thing with craft beer," he said, adding, "We have a chance to make Virginia beef the best in the country."

But market conditions were just one factor in a confluence of events that made Seven Hills Food possible.

The space formerly was used by the Dinner Bell Meat Company, which closed its doors about eight years ago.

"There's not something like this that's going to work with local farmers anywhere," said Marjette Upshur, director of the office of economic development in Lynchburg, which applied for the grant. "It had just been sitting here. I've been bringing people to look at it, but it's really a special-use kind of building."

Upshur said there will be a "Seven Hills" food label for certain products coming through the facility, which will distribute and help market beef, pork, lamb and goat meat, making custom packaging for Virginia farmers and wholesale orders for grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants. The company currently has about six agreements with farms, like the Buffalo River Ranch in Amherst, and expects at least another half-dozen.

"And we could do more," Ford said.

The new processing plant used a $250,000 grant from the state's Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, which was signed into law by former Gov. Bob McDonnell in the 2012 assembly. That grant was matched dollar for dollar by the city, totaling half a million for Seven Hills.

AFID grants are applied through the locality and the business beneficiary for a facility that produces "valued-added agricultural or forestal products," according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

McAuliffe was quick to say since being sworn into office about 21 months ago, he's completed 481 economic deals with $7.9 billion in total investments.

"We are very vulnerable because we are the No. 1 recipient of federal tax dollars," he said an interview afterwards. "We have to bring in new businesses."

During the announcement at Seven Hills, McAuliffe was interrupted by several protesters from the Farm Animal Rights Movement with yells of "It's wrong," and "It's violence." FARM's mission is to end the use of animals for food, according to its website. Protesters held signs calling the meat-processing facility a "death camp."

"Clearly, we're not going to shut down the slaughterhouse, but we want our voices to be heard," Bryan Monell, one of the protesters, said.

Lynchburg Mayor Mike Gillette said the new facility was important to a changing world and important for the city individually.

"One of the most important things we can do in a city like Lynchburg is to reuse the resources that we have," he said, adding locally grown resources are "an extraordinary part of a modern economy."

The property and infrastructure was purchased for $300,000 in January, according to the same records, and new equipment installations and renovations have since been done.

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