ROCKINGHAM — Gary Simmons walked between his home and poultry houses off Rawley Pike on Monday afternoon.
The 62-year-old farmer then went into a newer portion of one barn, where four white freezers sat humming away. Inside those freezers were sirloins, rib-eyes, ribs, brisket, ground beef and more from his own cows.
“I always wanted to do this,” Simmons said.
Back in June, he started Rawley Pike Meats with a neighbor to sell meat from the cows they raise in Rockingham County and outside Sugar Grove, W.Va., directly to area residents.
Other farmers are also doing the same — getting their meat processed by independent companies and then selling the meat directly to the community through stalls on their farm.
Simmons said his new meat business is part of an overall focus on less dangerous work as he gets older. He pulled up a picture on his phone of his bleeding head, where he was kicked by a cow a couple of months ago.
“I still have headaches,” he said, then pointed to his right shoulder, back, ribs and left shoulder — all broken at one time or another since he began farm work when he could crawl.
“I’ve got to start doing things a little bit easier on the body,” Simmons said.
The supply chain disruptions during the pandemic have caused problems at larger grocery stores trying to properly stock their shelves, providing an opportunity for farmers to take more control of their product from start to finish, he said.
“COVID was probably the main reason this happened,” Simmons said. “Couldn’t get nothing out here, and everybody was trying to buy meat.”
A new grant opportunity has opened up for processors of meat like Simmons sells, as well as other types of projects and businesses that turn agricultural resources into finished products such as cheese, steaks and more.
It’s an infrastructure grant through the the Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The grant was created by a new law, which started as a bill introduced by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, in January. The first funding round began on Friday and ends Nov. 15. Grant awards will be announced before the end of the year, according to VDACS documents.
Localities and planning districts, such as the Central Shenandoah Planning District and Rockingham County, can apply for up to $25,000 in matching funds for projects to support local food production. This would include for locally owned processing facilities, such as commercial kitchens, packaging and labeling facilities, and slaughterhouses for dairy, meat and produce, in addition to farmers markets and food hubs, according to VDACS documents.
“It’s not going to a do a lot for big, major capital improvements for capacity and slaughter and large-scale processing, but what it can do is help some existing operators maybe add additional cooler space, additional equipment to do some processing maybe they haven’t done before,” said Brad Copenhaver, VDACS commissioner.
Simmons, like other cattlemen have told the Daily News-Record, said there are delays in getting meat slaughtered even at local places due to both an increase in demand and workforce shortages.
“That’s something we are definitely seeing statewide. The demand for meat processing is just higher than what we’ve seen in a long time, and there’s a lot of interest in people getting fresh, local meat,” Copenhaver said.
He said in the “grand scheme of things” the supply chain held up during the most intense job losses and disruptions of the pandemic, but the pandemic also revealed areas where improvements can be made.
“Funding some local food infrastructure is one way we can start to do that, and I think it’s great when local people want to purchase food from their surrounding areas and have a better idea of where their food comes from,” Copenhaver said.
Rockingham County Economic Development Director Casey Armstrong agreed.
“Anything that we can do to improve the flow of agricultural product in and out of Rockingham County, whether that facility exists in the city of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County farmers are going to be relying on that facility to process those animals,” he said.
The new grant is one way that can be done, according to Armstrong.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to help ease the bottleneck in meat processing that exists now,” he said.
On Saturday mornings since June, Simmons has been in the barn selling his meat between 9:30 a.m. and noon. Over the past month, he’s sold meat from two whole cows.
“I’m not trying to put any big corporations out of business,” Simmons said with a slight laugh, leaning against the bed of his red Chevrolet pickup.
Even if there was an increase in the number of his cows Gores Meats in Edinburg could process, he’d want to be sure demand for the new business could keep up, he said.
“I’m just getting started,” Simmons said, leaving the barn after closing the freezers.