With kosher beef becoming a rarer refrigerator commodity in supermarket refrigerator cases, Pittsburgh residents may soon have a new kosher meat option come next spring.
Jennifer Jones of Lewisburg, W.Va., the owner of the Swift Level steer-raising farm, has been raising cattle all of her life. This past year, though, she turned her focus to providing kosher meat to her customers.
“I raise a really wonderful quality product and there’s a market for kosher beef,” she said. “The more I began researching the kosher beef market, the more I realized that people are eating kosher food but not a quality meat product.”
Though Jones isn’t Jewish herself, she said that she has a strong connection to the Jewish religion.
“I grew up eating kosher food,” she said. “I have many Jewish friends and my life has been very influenced by the Jewish community.”
Her business partner, who lives in California, but owns the land next to Jones, is Liz Tobey, who is Jewish.
“Liz is connected in the Jewish world and understands how things work in ways that I don’t,” Jones said. “Liz grew up with kosher cattle.”
“At this point we have developed a business plan for the kosher beef side of it,” Tobey said. “I’ve been working with my rabbi a little bit, talking about getting kosher certification.”
This year Jones took very few kosher meat orders. When she gets such an order, she must make the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Maryland where the closest kosher beef slaughterhouse is located.
There, she can only wait and hope that her steer is approved to be kosher. Once it is slaughtered, Jones brings back the meat to West Virginia and fills her orders.
Needless to say, the drive is a pain for Jones, so she hopes that one day a kosher slaughterhouse will open closer to her farm. Opening up her own kosher slaughterhouse is something that Jones and Tobey have actually thought about.
“That’s something that I’m seriously considering,” Jones said. “A slaughter facility that would be closest to the market would be really helpful.”
“I would like the idea of having our own facilities,” Tobey said. “That way we can control the treatment of the livestock. It’s a question of the cost. Ideally we would like to own our plant.”
Jones doesn’t take big bulk orders, instead she is a custom order provider, and will take orders as little as one pound.
She prides her product on being from grass-finished, humanely treated steer. With her farm raising the cattle and then bringing it to slaughter and selling it, she is able to cut out the middleman in the process.
“What I’m doing is providing the cream of the crop,” she said. “It’s a very clean product and very good beef. Let’s say you want some really good kosher beef. You want to know that it’s had one home and it was humanely treated.”
Jones normally picks out 30 to 50 steers in the fall, allows them to be weaned throughout the winter and brings them out to her farm the following spring. She begins slaughtering the 18 to 22 months old steers in June.
However, Jones picked out nearly 200 cattle in October, preparing for a much higher demand for kosher and non-kosher beef next summer.
Though Jones and Tobey have no actual contracts with any Pittsburgh–based meat distributors, they say they are prepared to fill orders from here.
With the suspension of operations at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, supplies of kosher beef have been declining throughout the country. But Jones’ business plans are not in response to the misfortunes of Agriprocessors.
“I’ve been working on this for two years,” she said. “This is a project I started on long before that happened.”
However, both Jones and Tobey have taken a few valuable lessons from what happened in Postville.
“We learned a lot of what not to do because of Agriprocessors,” Tobey said.
(Mike Zoller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)