by Rebecca Jackson
When German immigrant farmer Isaac Potter turned his first shovelful of earth near Lexington, VA in the 1850s on what would become Buffalo Creek Farm, little did he know that a bloody civil war would soon shred families, pit neighbor against neighbor and rend a young nation apart.
He labored mightily on the land, his hard work establishing a family farm that would endure well into the 21st century.
He and his brethren survived the War Between the States and launched an agricultural endeavor that grew into a thriving family beef enterprise supporting eight generations of Potters, most of them girls who love farming.
Rosalea Potter, a seventh-generation member of the family and mother of three preschool-aged daughters, Riley, Andi Grace and baby Carly, presides with husband and partner Chas and father-in-law and business partner Charlie over the Potters’ latest enterprise, the 13-employee Cattlemen’s Market. The one-year-old store sits at the crest of a hill over Lexington. Cattlemen’s is the family’s successful effort at farm-to-table direct marketing, delivering fresh meats directly to the consumer. Along with homemade pies, salads, sandwiches, side dishes and ready-to-bake and serve casseroles, sides of beef are carved into steaks and roasts at meatpacker Donald’s just up the road. Cattlemen’s also serves up local chicken and fish caught from nearby Atlantic waters, pork chops and more.
Rosalea, a Virginia Tech agriculture education graduate and former teacher, balances her dual roles as mother and entrepreneur. “We put in a full kitchen and a smoker out back for briskets and big roasts,” she said. But finding the right balance between wholesale and retail can be challenging, Roaslea added. “Now we’re going back and picking up the wholesale business, and a lot of our ground beef goes wholesale to restaurants and schools and other institutions.”
There is constant change in customer tastes, noted Charlie.
“We see direct marketing more as an opportunity than a challenge,” said Rosalea, her office filled with the clutter of baby and youth furniture and packages of strawberry fruit snacks. With the store, their work is paying off in just a year, with walk-in customers stocking up on packaged frozen and fresh cuts of meat.
In season, a vendor brings in fruits and vegetables from farms and market gardens close by, benefiting other businesses. The Potters supply meats to several markets and restaurants in Lexington, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Smith Mountain Lake and beyond. Last month they sent a shipment of beef to an eatery in food savvy Washington, D.C.
“Fifty percent of our wholesale business is in Lexington, but we’re willing to meet a customer on the road somewhere if that makes it more convenient for them,” said Rosalea.
In the 1950s, when Charlie was a small boy, the Potters sold their Angus calves through commodity markets, but they always kept some to be butchered and sold partial carcasses locally.
The bulk of the family business for many years on the farm was its cow/calf operation, selling feeder calves at a market weight of 500 – 600 pounds.
After graduating from high school and a stint in the construction industry, Charlie’s son Chas started his own farm as a backgrounding operation, buying groups of cattle, bringing them up to a uniform standard where they could be sent out west for finishing. The animals were transported west because of the abundance of feed corn growing in that region.
Between them, Charlie and Chas own and rent about 2,000 acres. Both men purchased land when they were quite young – about 21 years old, Charlie explained. Land prices averaged only $250 an acre when Charlie first dipped his toes into the field, and by the time his son was ready to take on his own effort, land prices had risen to around $2,500 per acre. With the cost of land and equipment today, it would be very difficult financially for a young farmer, short of inheritance, to amass enough land to run a significant operation.
Additionally, the Potters partner with neighbors to chop corn, pooling their manpower and resources. They source hogs and chickens from Pennsylvania and fresh seafood from the coast.
Their livestock is hormone- and antibiotic-free. They maintain a herd of 200 mature female cows with a complement of Angus and Wagyu sires and average around 800 stockers that end up at the butcher for processing each year. It takes from 24 to 30 months from calf conception to consumption, according to Rosalea Potter.
It’s rewarding to see people come in and get a good product, and then come back, Charlie said. Customers come from near and far, from many walks of life and ages. It helps that the store is located only about a mile off Interstate 81.
Around 2006, Chas observed the local food movement taking off and decided to finish 10 steers himself and the family started selling, first on Saturdays on their own farm and then at farmers markets, to friends and neighbors, and Buffalo Creek Beef was born.
Charlie and Chas Potter partnered with Donald’s meat processing in 2009 where, under USDA rules and guidelines, beef could be processed more conveniently in Lexington rather than transporting the animals 90 miles to New Market.
Although the hours spent between farm and store are erratic and long, the Potters cherish their lifestyle.
“For us and our kids, it’s a great quality of life,” said Rosalea. “They’re having experiences that a lot of other kids won’t have.”
The Potter family credits a big part of their success on their own hard work, as well as that of seven earlier generations of family. “We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t laid that foundation,” Rosalea said.