by Enrico Villamaino

The USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program was created to help agricultural producers enter value-added activities to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities and increase producer income.

In selecting awardees, the USDA focuses on beginning and/or socially disadvantaged farmers, small and medium sized farms, ranches structured as family farms and farm and ranch cooperatives.

Bernadette Vaughan of Coastal Cattle, located in Virginia Beach, VA, spoke to Country Folks about her family’s business and its recently awarded VAPG grant.

“We started Coastal Cattle in 2014 because our (at the time) 12-year-old wanted to raise cattle. She was active in our local 4-H organization and, with the money she had raised completing her livestock projects, she wanted to buy bred heifers, raise the babies and show them in regional and local shows,” Vaughan said. “So we bought five bred heifers. Both of our girls showed the calves for a couple years. But everything was so far from us and, getting into other local activities, it became harder and harder to accommodate the show circuit.”

By this time, they had about 30 cows and calves. They needed to find an alternative, and they had been hearing from people wanting to know where their food comes from and wanting a local product from a local farm. “Us being mainly in metropolitan Virginia Beach, we had a very closed market – no one within 60 miles of us did a farm-to-table meat option,” Vaughan said. “We saw an opportunity and ran with it. We processed our first retail cuts in June 2018. We opened the Meat Shack, our on-farm retail store, in February of 2019.”

The farm is located in the southern rural area of Virginia Beach referred to as Pungo. They’re located on a land grant farm originally granted to the Vaughan family nine generations ago in 1720 by King George I of England. They have approximately 250 acres of pasture and hay ground they use for the herd. They rotationally graze the pastures and have approximately 180 head of cattle, raising 100% Hereford beef.

“The calves are on pasture 100% of their lives, and we finish with grain for added marbling and finish,” Vaughan explained. “The grains we feed are a combination of spent grains from local breweries, distilleries and a home feed mix that we produce here on the farm.”

Coastal Cattle currently has eight employees between the farm and the Meat Shack. The Meat Shack is open year-round with extended hours in the summer to accommodate the tourist traffic in the area. They went through the USDA-FSIS process to have their products labeled for their particular claims: 100% Hereford, no antibiotics, no hormones, pasture raised. They sell all cuts of beef individually as well as wholes, halves and quarters. They also just added pasture-raised chicken to their product line that they raise on the pastures behind the cows.

Farm-to-table beef in Virginia Beach

Located in Virginia Beach, VA, Coastal Cattle is using a USDA grant to make improvements to the Meat Shack, its on-site store. Photo courtesy of Coastal Cattle

Vaughan explained that they sell their meat in their on-farm retail store, online, in two local farm stands and to eight restaurants in the area. “We began with online ordering (with pickup at the farm only) in July 2018, opened the retail store in February 2019 and expanded the store in May of 2022,” she said. “The two local farm stands do not have meat products, so it’s a good fit to widen our customer base and the restaurants have been great with getting the word out about local products and sourcing from us as well as other local farmsteads.”

Virginia Beach comprises about 497 square miles with over 450,000 people, not to mention the other cities in a 60-mile radius. The region is known as the Hampton Roads Area and has 1.7 million people. “Being the only farm that does what we do in Virginia Beach, and one of only a handful in the area, lends itself to a large pool of customers,” Vaughan stated.

The farm decided to apply for the value-added grant because it presented an opportunity to grow their business. “We do well with our sales and the retail part, but there is a lot that goes into the herd portion to get our products to the finish line,” Vaughan said. “In order to get the products, we need the calves, and calves do not grow fast in the manner in which we raise them … It takes about 16 months to go from birth to processing. Our processing costs have gotten so high that the margin in which we work is very small. The need to grow the herd is difficult. The opportunity to use the grant for operating costs, including processing, allows us more room for expanding the herd.”

Coastal Cattle has used their grant for a reimbursement of operating costs for the value-added portion of their business. It only covers expenses from the calves leaving the farm to the final sale. They’ve used it for non-owner and non-family payroll, processing costs, packaging, finished product storage, specific marketing and upgrades of small equipment used in the retail store. Vaughan added that it allowed them to hire a marketing employee and gave them the means to expand their retail store and implement changes that were needed to make the store more efficient.

“Obviously, starting as a show business and converting to a meat business, the thought process has changed quite a bit,” she said, “but we have been very blessed to have had a great reception from our community and the business has grown so much. When we started in the middle of 2018, we were processing two calves a month. We started to have a waiting list on products, so we increased our numbers. We are now processing five calves every three weeks.”

As for what’s next, beyond adding the chickens to their products, Coastal Cattle has partnered with another close family farm to add their pork products to their offerings. They hope to eventually expand their farm to include a partial processing facility on site to cut down on processing costs and have more control of their products by implementing a cut and wrap facility.

“We’ll use a USDA custom exempt facility for slaughter and bring the quarters back here to the farm to finish the aging process,” Vaughan said. “We’ll then butcher and package products on site for retail sale. We’re working with the USDA now to receive our grant of inspection to make this possible.”

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