The one thing Ray Snyder said his customers keep telling him is how tender the beef is that he sells.

There’s a reason folks find it so tender, and it starts on RTS Farms on Gravel Hill Road between Troutville and Fincastle, and it ends there as well.

Ray Snyder at RTS Farms near Troutville. Photo by Ed McCoy
Ray Snyder at RTS Farms near Troutville. Photo by Ed McCoy

Ray and his wife Joanne decided earlier this year they were going full circle with their farm—from raising cattle to selling the final product.

They were taking control, something traditional beef cattle farming hadn’t really allowed them to do.

So, instead of just raising cattle, now the Snyders are spending their Saturday mornings at the Troutville Farmers Market where they’re selling their own brand of their personally raised beef.

As they hoped, they’re finding more people are becoming customers, and more customers are becoming repeat customers as they build on the idea that folks want quality food and they want to know where their food’s coming from.

Folks are also becoming more cognizant of what’s in the food they buy, too; or in the case of beef, more particularly they want to be sure what’s not in their food.

RTS Farms’ beef is all-natural. The cattle get no hormones, antibiotics or steroids. They’re free-roaming and primarily grass-fed—all in stark contrast to most of the beef sold in this country today.

From the time a calf’s feet hit the ground for the first time until it’s raised and ready for processing, it doesn’t leave their farm. After it’s processed, it’s back to the Snyders who started selling the hamburger, roasts and steaks themselves a couple of months ago.

It took a lot of thought and planning before Ray Snyder decided to change the way he operated RTS Farms, which is also the label for the packaged beef they sell.

It meant going from that traditional beef cattle farm where he bought and raised cattle then sold them at market auction for whatever price was paid. Someone else “finished” the cattle—most likely in feedlots in the Midwest—took care of processing and sold them through wholesalers to grocery chains or other food outlets before they reached a customer.

“There are just too many people between the farmer and the customer,” Snyder said.

There are other reasons, too, for making the move to directly market their own beef.

“You have more of a sense of accomplishment for what your product is when someone comes up to you and says, ‘That was a great steak. It was tender and tasted great,’” Snyder added.

“It creates pride in your product. What pride can you have in your product when you take (cattle) to market and you don’t know what happens to it after it goes off to a feed lot?”

There are no questions when he sells a package of RTS Farms’ beef.

“We track every animal from the day it hits the ground,” Snyder explained. It gets vaccinations against normal cattle diseases and dewormed. Other than that, the cattle on his farm live essentially stress-free.

They graze the pastures on his 120-acre farm and the 200-plus acres he rents or leases. They eat the hay he puts up, and to add just a little fat, they get a bit of grain as they reach their finished weight.

They don’t drink water from ponds or streams, instead they get fresh well water. They’re fed hay in feed bunkers recommended by Va. Tech. The bunkers are covered concrete troughs with a 6-inch step so the cows won’t back up to the trough and do what cows do. The same for the water troughs. That way neither their water nor their hay gets contaminated.

That stress-free environment also contributes to the quality of the beef. When cattle aren’t stressed, they don’t create the enzymes that race through the muscles which can toughen the final product.

Even when Snyder takes cattle to the small, USDA certified meat processing plant he uses in North Carolina, he takes two at a time to reduce the stress. The processor recommended that, Snyder said.

Snyder likes the small processing operation he uses. Most of the room at the facility is refrigerated storage where beef hangs to age. He said it’s designed so there’s a lot of air flow through the storage area.

Snyder likes his beef to age 14 to 21 days. That’s another component in how tender his cuts of beef are.

Since his cattle are grass-fed, and free roaming, they take longer to reach processing weight, and they have much less fat than cattle that are finished in a feedlot where they’re only grain fed so they gain weight quickly. Overall, his cows have only 10 percent fat, and he has to provide some grain to get to the 10 percent fat.

Snyder says his operation means the beef he produces is preservative free, high in amino acids, lower in calories than cattle finished in feedlots, rich in Omega-3 essential fatty acids and has just enough fat to make it “mouth-watering delicious but still healthy for you.”

The fact that more people are concerned about eating healthy and living healthy lifestyles is a component of marketing his beef.

Yes, the price per pound is higher than what you’ll find in a grocery store, but these days that’s the price of finding healthy food that you know where it came from and how it was raised and handled.

The final product—those steaks, roasts, strips and burgers—is vacuum sealed at the processing plant, frozen and labeled with the weight and cut of meat in a clear wrap. The label is coded, too, so Snyder knows exactly which cow it came from.

The Snyders decided to pursue the idea of marketing their own beef after he stopped at Baldwin Farm near Chapel Hill, N.C. They were returning home after Joanne’s father’s funeral. They’d passed the farm operation several times, and were curious about the operation where that family was already raising and selling their own charlette beef.

As Ray Snyder talked to the Baldwins about their cattle operation, a couple arrived—regular Baldwin customers.

Snyder chatted with the couple, and told them he was considering doing the same thing. Then he learned they were from Roanoke and drove to Baldwin Farm to buy beef. They told him they’d buy from him if he ever got started.

“It was like someone was talking to me, like a sign, that I should try this,” Snyder said.

In the process of developing their own brand of beef, the Sndyers earned the right to display the distinctive Virginia’s Finest logo.

Virginia’s Finest “checkmark” means the products has been deemed the best of the best.

Only Virginia products that meet or exceed quality standards are part of the Virginia’s Finest Program.  Under the program, specific industries recommend, create and update the quality standards.  All Virginia’s Finest products must be approved by the Virginia’s Finest Review Committee.  The committee reviews product packaging and labels to ensure products meet state and federal regulations.  The committee verifies that products meet or exceed the standards established by the industry.  In the case of many products, the company must be inspected by VDACS.

The Snyders are set up Saturday mornings at Troutville Farmers Market in Troutville Town Park and at RTS Farms by appointment, 992-1361 or 529-7786.