In our first post of our new “Meet the Farmer” series, we are featuring Seven Hills Food. Seven Hills is the largest independent slaughter facility in Virginia with a mission of bringing local meat consumers and local meat producers together; with a focus on quality, transparency and sustainability.
Ryan Ford, owner of Seven Hills Foods, also happens to be the brother-in-law of The Organic Butcher owner, Don Roden, extending our family-run operation all the way to the farm. Some of the staff from the shop recently had the opportunity to visit Seven Hills and learn all about what sets them above the rest.
Seven Hills’ operation is based out of the historic Holliday Street Plant in Lynchburg, Virginia. The plant was put through a 20-month renovation to bring it into the modern era, and to add digital systems that aid in product traceability from beginning to end. In addition to giving life to an old building, Ryan wanted to breathe some new life to the farm to table movement in the Old Dominion State.
While locally sourcing food has been popular for a few years, there are limitations when it comes to proteins. Locally sourced proteins are frequently scarce or prohibitively expensive for many customers. Ryan and Seven Hills discovered that solving the problem of how to get locally-raised beef on the plate—took more than just raising healthy animals on a local farm. “You just can’t grow local proteins without processing [them]” says Ryan. “This has been the bottleneck that has existed and really prevented beef from being able to rise in the tide of local food.”Clearing that bottleneck drove Seven Hills to restore the Lynchburg abattoir.
Their ultimate goal, however, is to restore a system of meat production that’s been lost for decades. “Around the 1960s, the industry consolidated”says Ryan, and with that consolidation came a lack of choice. Instead of having the ability to speak with the processing plant and getting custom selections, purveyors got stuck with pre-chosen, vacuum packed cuts of meat, being shipped in from somewhere across the country. It wasn’t enough for Seven Hills to offer locally sourced protein, they wanted to ensure unbeatable quality as well. “We realized that there’s a demand for a high-quality local product that far exceeds the supply in the marketplace,”says Ryan.
Seven Hills has met this demand by meeting with local cattle farmers. Now instead of selling to anonymous, automated processing plants, farmers can sell their stock to Seven Hills knowing their cows will be treated humanely, with care, and will become part of a robust local food system. “If you want to know where your food comes from, then we’re the people you want to take a look at,”explains Ryan. “We’re always going to be a people place, this is a place where tradesman will be harvesting beef, not machines.”
Instead of automating their processing plant, Seven Hills went the traditional route. This traditional, skill-based approach means that Seven Hills can offer something many chefs and butchers have been lacking for years: customization! Seven Hills welcomes special requests. If a customer wants a specific cut, or a longer dry aging process, all they have to do is ask. Seven Hills dry-ages their meat in-house, a process that removes extra moisture from the meat and creates a more tender and flavorful product. Dry-aging guarantees quality and is rarely done in processing plants due to the time, space and dedication it takes. Learn even more about dry-aging here.
It was incredible to see first-hand the difference it makes when working with a small operation in regard to customization. A prime example is the Dry-Aged 5th Rib Tomahawk we recently started stocking. The 5thrib, aka chuck eye steak, comes from the chuck portion of the steak and is typically be a tougher cut, but Seven Hills is able to custom cut and dry-age these impressive steaks so you’re getting flavor and tenderness at a killer value. Learn even more about this cut here.
Hiring tradesmen to harvest beef the old-fashioned way also allows Seven Hills to focus their technology and digital systems on something else vital to their business model—traceability. Seven Hills knows where every cow comes from, allowing them to offer customers highly specific product options. If a restaurant wants a case of steaks from Charlottesville, Seven Hills can ensure that the diners are feasting on local beef. Traceability also means Seven Hills can make changes to their lines if they need to. “If we have a chef or a butcher that says, ‘Hey we got a case of steaks from you that were kind of tough,’ we can actually react to that,”says Ryan.“We can go to the producer. It gives you a really good chance to create the highest quality beef over the long run.”
It’s Ryan’s hope that Seven Hills can lead the way in a local protein revolution, “I think there’s excitement for everyone about the opportunity to create a branded Virginia beef line.”. He envisions a world where local processing can change what it means to order a steak at restaurants. “Whether the customer is a chef, or the guest of a chef in a restaurant, knowing that you’re two handshakes away from a live Angus beef steer on a Virginia farm is a powerful thing.”