VALLEY OAKS STEAK COMPANY: WHEN DOING IT RIGHT STILL MEANS YOU ARE UNDER FIRE
Successful Family Farm Under Fire
Valley Oaks Steak Company is owned by the Ward family whose members have farmed and ranched between Grain Valley & Oak Grove, Missouri since 1946. Even now, there are three generations living near the old homestead. In 1992, David and Sandra Ward started Valley Oaks Angus. With annual production sales, selling beef to friends and neighbors, and their children and grandchildren showing angus cattle across the country, beef business has been good.
By the early 2000’s, the Ward’s commercial herd was about 200 cows and they had a large demand for their registered Angus stock. There was a nice market for their high quality privately sold beef. As demand grew, the family’s goal was to “meat” it head on.
Valley Oaks Steak Company was founded in 2016 on 450 acres in nearby Lone Jack, MO; built on land the family purchased in 2004. The initial facility was a covered feed yard for ~600 head. Shortly after, they added a USDA inspected processing center, an on-site retail store, and a few other local grocery stores. Chefs in some top KC restaurants got word and added Valley Oaks Steak to the menu as well.
The vision of Valley Oaks is to provide high quality, locally grown beef to the Kansas City area. A real farm-to-fork operation. Consumer demand for this local product took off like wildfire. The overwhelming demand for their beef fueled the need to expand again.
That’s when the trouble started. Valley Oaks Steak Company filed for an expansion permit with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in the Fall of 2017. It did not take long for a community group with strong ties to Socially Responsible Agricultural Projects (SRAP) to start making noise.
Tony Ward, family spokesperson and Valley Oaks COO, states that up until filing for an expansion permit with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Valley Oaks had never had a complaint - not one in their first 18 months of operation. Ward thinks this is in part because Valley Oaks has been a good neighbor that strives to not only follow government guidelines but surpass them at every level.
Above and Beyond the Missouri DNR & USDA requirements
No Discharge Facility
In their Fall 2017 filing with the MO DNR, Valley Oaks stated they would be a “zero run off” facility. Zero run off in a place with average rain fall of ~ 44 inches/year means a state-of-the-art facility, ample manure (fertilizer) storage, and the ability to use this waste in several different ways.
Many methods Valley Oaks uses not only protects their local environment but keep their cattle more comfortable. The cattle pens are bedded with locally sourced wood shavings to help dry waste and give cattle a comfortable place to live. Once the manure is removed from the pens, it is composted with hay to soak up any remaining moisture. The Wards went a step further and purchased an air dryer and bagger for their, now, fertilizer.
The organic fertilizer is then applied by a spreader to the Ward’s own corn and hay fields, they give some to neighboring farms, and soon it will be available for sale in bagged form.
All of these steps go a long way to controlling odor and protecting the surrounding environment.
Berms and storm sewers have been built to divert clean stormwater from the production area, grass surrounds all the barns to filter any rain water and prevent erosion close to the buildings. All cattle are housed under roof, so groundwater is further protected as there will be no interaction of rain water and cattle manure.
Cattle Care and Quality Assurance
Cattle care is the number one concern at Valley Oaks. The Wards put a lot of planning, experience, and knowledge into building a facility that can be environmentally friendly, yet comfortable for the cattle.
The expanded facility can house approximately 4500 head. The cattle area is made of concrete floors and walls to ensure manure containment then bedded with sawdust. The cattle have almost twice the average amount of space compared to industry standard.
Stress on the animals is a concern for all producers. At Valley Oaks, the cattle live in climate-controlled buildings with fans and an organic fly/pest control system to keep them comfortable throughout the year.
Most of their feed is grown by the Wards themselves or sourced from local farmers.
All Valley Oaks employees that play a role in animal handling are certified in Beef Quality Assurance (BQA). This program funded by Beef Checkoff Dollars sets a high industry standard for the handling and care of cows from birth to processing. Started in 1991, it is currently a voluntary program focusing on educating and training cattle producers, farm advisors, and veterinarians on the issues in cattle food safety and quality. It also provides tools for verifying and documenting husbandry practices.
The Wards are even offering a free BQA seminar and certification at their March Valley Oaks Angus Production Sale. This gives other producers and livestock haulers the opportunity to learn more as well.
More on The Beef Quality Assurance Program: www.bqa.org/
Low Stress Handling
In addition to their BQA certified employees and the cattle housing facility, another way they keep the cattle’s stress level low is by minimizing cattle hauling. The Valley Oaks facility is designed so the cattle walk in pairs to the processing building where they are humanly harvested. Eliminating the hauling leg entirely.
There is a USDA inspector on site to grade the beef and preform federal inspections, the retail stores are inspected by the county health department, and the Department of Natural Resources routinely inspects the operation. Aside from one mishap while training a 1st day employee, all inspections have been completed without infraction.
Truly Farm-to-Fork: Locally Sourced Producers
90% of the cattle at Valley Oaks comes from within a 400-mile radius. What they don’t raise themselves increasingly comes from members of their Buy Back Program. Valley Oaks Angus sells registered angus bulls. The bull buyers breed their own cattle with Valley Oaks genetics. As participants of the Buy Back Program, they can then sell their steers back to Valley Oaks at a premium. This program gives the Wards a traceable and high-quality product, similar to their own commercial herd, while supporting their local producers.
Open to the Public
As the disparity between urban and rural lifestyles continues to grow, it is progressively more difficult for consumers to educate themselves on where their food comes from. It is important to many people to know their meat was treated humanely. In an effort to help educate the public, Valley Oaks Steak Company offers facility tours so people can see the majority of the process. These tours are offered any time the facility is open. Maybe if more people took the Wards up on their offer, there would be a better balance to the community division brought on by the SRAP group.
Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Agriculture is Launched
Shortly after the expansion permit was filed with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MO DNR), a local SRAP affiliated group was launched in Lone Jack, MO. Started by a local realtor, Carolyn Wilkinson, Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Agriculture (LJNRA) was organized and soon well-funded when they added Powell Gardens in February 2018. Powell Gardens is a botanical garden nearly 4 miles from Valley Oaks Steak Company. The original idea to involve Powell Gardens came from Terry Spence, SRAP Executive Director, who is also from Missouri. Involving the garden, he said, would help them with funding. He was correct. The Valley Oaks expansion has been a great way to garner more donations from the community.
Attacked by a Web of Animal Rights and Non-Governmental Organizations
True to form, there is a web of relationships between the Lone Jack Neighbors organization and many other animal rights affiliated groups, large and small. Aside from the obvious connection with Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, they are also connected to the MO chapter of the Sierra Club and PETA. Wilkinson also shares posts from other anti-agriculture groups like Family Farm Action and we have shown in past expose’s SRAP has very close ties with Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). John Ikerd (SRAP/HSUS) is cited as an industry expert in some of the LJNRA website resources and is mentioned several times in letters written to the DNR.
For more information about SRAP: https://protecttheharvest.com/news/socially-responsible-agricultural-project-threatens-agriculture/
A member of the MO chapter of the Sierra Club spoke at the public hearing in April 2018 on behalf of Powell Gardens and the Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Agriculture.
PETA Sets Up a Billboard Right Down the Road
That same month, to further fuel the fire of community discontent, PETA put up a “Meat Stinks” billboard close to Valley Oaks Steak Company encouraging those opposed to the expansion to go vegan. They also posted about Valley Oaks on their website. The other side of the billboard was Powell Gardens.
SRAP Community Activist Group – Busy on Social Media
A fellow MO based SRAP community activist group called Friends of Responsible Agriculture (FRA) shows support frequently by sharing Facebook posts from LJNRA, SRAP, & OCM. Some Lone Jack residents went to their annual dinner in Columbia, MO. FRA was founded in 2014 and its President, Jeff Jones, worked with Terry Spence of SRAP and Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) against a large hog feeding location in Callaway County, MO. Jones has a small angus cattle farm.
SRAP Playbook - Checklist
This entire situation is cut from the SRAP playbook, almost word for word:
• Form a community group (check)
• Get funding (check)
• Rile up community members using scare tactics and alarmist views (check)
• Involve “like minded” media to write biased and nearly slanderous articles (check)
• File a nuisance lawsuit (check)
• Harass the family, their employees, and the people they do business with…… (check).
While researching this situation it was soon evident that most of the news coverage and online articles were very one sided and not fully researched. Multiple articles in “The Pitch” were particularly derogatory. The majority of the author’s statements about the Ward family and their businesses are at best extremely skewed.
Neighbors Harassing Neighbors
If it was just yard signs and community meetings, most would feel those are acceptable actions for people to take in opposition to something happening in their community. However, community meetings and yard signs were just the beginning for the Ward family, their employees, and businesses associates. Starting in March 2018, the family reported threats to their personal safety and an attempted home break in. Their home addresses and the school their children attend were publicized on social media. In April, 3 Valley Oaks steers and a pregnant heifer were shot with a handgun in their pasture, 3 of the 4 cows died.
Due to picketing of their businesses and general harassment, the Wards found it necessary to remove all signage from their delivery trucks.
Local products like wine & honey are offered in the Ward family owned grocery stores and markets. Even those farmers have dealt with harassment do to their business association with Valley Oaks. Their local cattle and feed suppliers haven’t fared much better. If you associate with Valley Oaks Steak Company, prepare to be a target.
What’s Now Happening to Valley Oaks Steak Company
Being Punished For Delivering Products Urban Customers Want
The Ward family continues to persevere despite all the media opposition and nasty onslaught from LJNRA. It is important they continue to grow their cattle operation and serve their urban customers. Demand for their high quality, cost conscience, humanely raised beef continues to expand. Especially from urban Kansas City customers.
Lawsuit Filed Against Valley Oaks Steak Company
In September, a civil suit was filed against Valley Oaks Steak Company by Powell Gardens and a group of citizens. It is scheduled for a jury trial late February 2020.
It is important to note that one of the plaintiffs had previously interviewed for a job at Valley Oaks Steak Company to work in the feedlot. He requested an exorbitant annual salary of $100,000 per year to clean the pens and feed cattle. For those unfamiliar with the cattle industry, this salary is very high and abnormal for this type of work. A salary Valley Oaks payroll certainly could not support. It is interesting that this plaintiff obviously had no issues with the Valley Oaks facility when asking for a job with a ridiculous salary. Once his request was turned down, suddenly the facility is a nuisance.
Previously Approved Expansion Permit Has Been Denied
In the beginning, Valley Oaks Steak Company received approval for their expansion permit. However, once SRAP and Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Agriculture came on the scene Valley Oaks has now endured nearly a year and a half of filings, injunctions, appeals, and stays ultimately leading to a denial of their permit. Valley Oaks filed a new request in early December 2018 and provided the MO DNR with nearly 490 pages of information on their Nutrient Management Plan (manure storage and use plan).
Summit Against Large Family Farms
On January 26, 2019 Missouri Rural Crisis Center hosted a summit against large family farms. Valley Oaks was discussed by Carolyn Wilkinson. She was reported as saying that she would stop Valley Oaks however she could, legally or illegally.
What Is Wrong with Family Farms Being Successful?
In the publicly posted letters sent to the MO DNR, members of Lone Jack Neighbors and other citizens use the term “family farm” time and time again. This term was used to describe themselves and demonize Valley Oaks.
Since when did a family farm have to fit a size mold? A multi-generational family farm that has success and grows to fit the needs of customers is still a family farm. In fact, per the USDA survey (2017) 99% of US farms are family owned.
Our American family farms and ranches are filled with hard working, caring people. If they are successful, they grow larger, just like any business and that success is shared throughout the community.
Protect The Harvest supports all types of farms and ranches, both large and small. Families of all kinds make this country great.