Cattleman ships from southwest Va. to southern China

Published 10:37 am Thursday, June 21, 2018

Virginia Farm Bureau

It’s a long trip from the mountains of Southwest Virginia to southern China, but it was a trip Smyth County cattleman Seth Umbarger was ready to take to help his family farm expand.

After several years of selling top-quality live cattle to a middleman who resold the beef to the Whole Foods grocery chain, Umbarger is searching for ways to expand his operation, possibly overseas.

He learned that China had lifted import restrictions on American beef earlier this year and contacted the international marketing office at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inquire about exporting Virginia beef to China.

That started a conversation that led to Umbarger joining a late- May trade mission to China, which was sponsored by VDACS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It was the chance of a lifetime,” Umbarger shared. “I’m trying real hard for my wife and I to stay here on the farm and work, and not have an off-farm job. We both have agriculture degrees; she has a retail store here on the farm selling our beef; and we divide and conquer to attend farmers’ markets on the weekends.

“But there’s only so much demand here for local beef. So I’m just trying ways to sell more beef than just live animals.”

He used the trip to China as a “discovery mission to see what kind of beef cuts and what quantities the Chinese buyers were looking for. No one was able to answer these questions here, so I just went and asked. There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings sometimes in international trade.”

China is the No. 1 importer of Virginia food and forestry products. As of March 2018, the U.S. had exported $15.8 million in beef to China in the past year, according to VDACS.

“We absolutely connected” with the Chinese buyers, Umbarger said. “What just blew my mind was the sheer number of consumers and the quantity of food that they want. It’s a huge market, and it’s a market where quality is important, but traceability is even more important. They want something that is safe and traceable. And that’s the kind of program I have in place already.”

Umbarger has applied for a USDA producer value-added grant to expand his business. He used the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability to help write his grant proposal, which may be approved this fall. VA FAIRS is a subsidiary of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and “was very helpful,” he said.