Gap Mills, West Virginia is just 67 miles northwest of Roanoke but it’s at least an hour and a half away by car, thirty minutes longer than you would spend going from one place to another in the flat Midwest. You can spend that extra half hour being amazed at the mountain scenery of the Appalachian ridge that splits the two places.
Larry Echols runs a cow/calf and stocker operation near Gap Mills in this southernmost region of the state. “We raise some cattle, some sheep and a little hay,” he said when I talked with him during the holiday season.
“My kids raised the sheep for show,” he said, explaining that they got into it when they were still kids. They’re grown and remain part of the family business, now. His daughter, Allison, is 25 and graduated from Virginia Tech with a master's degree in animal science. Andrew is two years younger and also has an animal science degree from Virginia Tech.
“I started working on this property part-time in the mid-70s and went full-time in 1992 when I left my city job. . .’City’ meaning a government job located in a town of about 600 residents.” Echols’ father previously ran the farm for a lady who had operated there for 80 years. "I bought the original property – 157 acres – and added to it over the years.”
Under his guidance, the original small farm grew to almost 1,200 acres, a very large place by Eastern standards. He also leases another 2,500 to 3,000 acres. It’s an area with a lot of absentee owners: people who love the lifestyle but are not interested in taking on an agricultural enterprise themselves. Many landowners in the area are tied to the major nearby urban areas such as Washington, DC; Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and are anxious to rent their property for some added income. It also gives him plenty of space to keep 600 momma cows and as many as 1,000 yearlings.
The East coast market is a little different than the Midwest. There are few large feed yards and the lines of distribution are much shorter. “Our cattle are mostly grass-fed and we sell our animals in July, mostly into the Pennsylvania feeder market. For the past four years, one man bought and finished all our steers.”
Echols can track precisely where his beef goes. “A lot of our beef goes into white tablecloth restaurants and some of the butchers in New York City like to break our carcasses.”
He’s a veteran CBB member coming back for the second time, having already served two three-year terms beginning in 1998. He took six years off and then accepted a second appointment by USDA Secretary Vilsack in March, 2010.