Besides raising cattle, Mike Clark of Burkeville, Va., spreads chicken litter for other farmers. Over 10 years ago while making a litter-spreading trip to a farmer in a county over, he saw something he had never seen before.
The farmer told him that a newborn calf standing beside its mother was already sold to someone in Richmond, Va. The buyer had visited the farmer’s farm and picked the calf out.Clark and the farmer talked for awhile, and then Clark slid into his truck and began driving home.
• Cattleman sells beef directly to customers.
• He stumbled across grass-fed beef production by accident.
• He believes direct sales is a better way to sell beef.
“That was the longest 25 miles I had ever had on that day home,” he says. His thoughts were swirling around in his head. “I was raising cows and calves and doing a really good job in taking my cattle to the stockyard, selling them and taking what I could get, or what somebody else told me they’d give me. This guy was sitting at home, and he had people coming to his house picking his cows out a year ahead of time. It just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
The farmer was raising his cattle as grass-fed beef. This was a new concept that Clark had only read about in magazines. Once he reached home, he told his wife, Cindy, but they didn’t tell anybody else at first. As usual, he continued to raise his cattle and sold most of them at the stockyard, yet he also kept a few cows and finished them out on grass rather than grain. Then he sent them to a butcher to be processed for the meat. He found the meat was “absolutely delicious.”
However, that good-tasting packaged beef created a problem. How was he going to sell it? He and his wife didn’t want to eat that much beef at one time — they wanted to share it with customers.
While attending a seminar at the research station in Blackstone, Va., Clark heard North Carolina cattleman V. Mac Baldwin, who had experience at raising and marketing grass-fed beef, talk about his operation.
Wanting to sell beef on a larger scale, Clark asked Baldwin, “How do you go from handling one box of meat to 100 coolers full of meat?” Clark had been putting his meat in small freezers on the farm, but after a while the volume grew too large.
Baldwin told him, “Where you’re going, Mike, I’ve already been.”
After listening to Baldwin, Clark felt more confident and realized that there was probably no one in his part of Virginia raising cattle this way, on a large scale and selling the cuts of meats.
Clark, his wife, and their son Andrew began feeding some of their cattle on grass, eventually having the cows butchered and selling the meat at farmers markets and a few restaurants.
“It wasn’t long before we figured out that the demand for what we were doing dictated that we needed to put our whole operation in this program.”
That’s when Clark came up with the name for his branded beef business: Greenway Beef. It represented the way he and his wife were raising their cattle and preserving their land.
The Clarks market their beef to farmers markets in Richmond, Va.; retailers in the Virginia cities of Richmond, Farmville, Blackstone and Norfolk; and on their website, www.greenwaybeef.com. The percentage of beef that he sells changes between the seasons. Online sales have been “fantastic” in the wintertime, especially during Christmas. In the spring and summer, those sales decrease some, but retail farmers market sales pick up just in time for when beef sales peak in July.
“Once people get used to buying beef, then they’re going to come buy online in the wintertime,” Clark says.
Sales continued to grow, and as Clark expected, he needed larger freezers. So he put up a building and installed two freezer boxes to handle the greater volume of meat. That was two years ago; now his operation has nearly outgrown that solution.
During the fast growth in beef sales, Clark noticed that customers buy grass-fed beef for the first time because:
• The farmer is local.
• The cattle are grass-fed.
• The cows are free of antibiotics and hormones.
• The beef is a “Virginia’s Finest” product, approved by the state department of agriculture.
• The beef is leaner, with less fat than grain-fed beef.
Even with those good reasons, customers are still picky. “They’ll buy it for a whole bunch of reasons the first time,” Clark says, “but nobody will buy it the second time unless it tastes good. That’s the part we work at every day — to make sure our product is tasty and consistent. We get a lot of feedback from our customers.”
You’ve got personality
Clark believes part of raising good grass-fed beef starts with the cattle and their disposition. “We keep our cows real calm,” he says. “If we have one that has any kind of problem, we get rid of him immediately. When we go to move our cows, they’re ready to go. We seldom have to chase a cow. Our cows come to us.
“Our cattle are usually 18 to 24 months old when we butcher them,” he adds. “We generally try to deliver the cattle a day ahead to the butcher shop so the cattle are nice and calm on the butchering day.”
The butcher is about 160 miles away in Winchester, Va. Clark may haul four cows at a time in one trip, then take another four the next week.
While marketing his beef, Clark learned a lot from his customers and realized they often were confused before making a purchase. He found that if they asked a meat question, he had to know the answer or suggest an alternative. For example, a woman walked up to him at a farmers market and asked for a tri-tip steak. Clark told her he didn’t cut a tri-tip but suggested a nice sirloin that was available. He showed it to her, and she bought it.
“The challenges of this along the way are that being a farmer, knowing how to raise cows, knowing how to have cows butchered, learning the meat side of the business and learning how to sell is way different than just being a farmer,” Clark says. “The learning curve for that is straight up, because you will be asked questions you don’t know the answers to unless you’ve done your homework.”
Of course, much of that was from research, but Clark found another way. He knew a friend who was a successful car dealer in Farmville and who also happened to raise cattle. While riding around one day, Clark asked him how he became so successful in his automobile business.
“He looked at me and said, ‘All you have to do is make it easy for people to buy things, and then you can sell things.’ ”
Eventually, using that information, Clark came up with his own retail program. He supplied retailers with a freezer and meat so it would be easier for them to market his beef.
Growing herd, business
“Right now, we’re selling just about all the beef we can raise,” Clark says, “and we’re just constantly trying to increase our herd.”
Today, the Clarks raise crossbred Charolais and Angus cattle. They let about 400 head of cattle graze on 37 different pastures, taking up about 600 acres. The pastures are scattered over eight farms in four counties. He is working hard to add more pasture and cows. He also recently added pork products he gets from his butcher to his sales.
Growing a herd is a slow growth process — to take a cow, have a calf and then butcher it. “It’s years from inception to sales,” he says.
Nonetheless, “We’re sort of doing the right thing at the right time,” Clark says. “Twenty years ago, what we wanted to do wouldn’t have worked. The more people want to know about their food and the more customers we find, the more people they tell.”
Womack writes from Danville, Va.