OLIVIA, MINN. – Tom Revier said he knew his cattle operation was in for a jolt when the Chinese government cordoned off the city of Wuhan because of the coronavirus.
"That scared the heck out of me," he said. "First time that I can recall a large city being quarantined."
This year has forced his farm, Revier Cattle Co., Minnesota's largest beef cattle operation, to shift how it raises animals and sells meat.
The farm near the central Minnesota city of Olivia is unusual in that it bypasses the commodity beef market to sell its own brand directly to customers.
About 50% of pre-COVID sales were to restaurants and food service. The business that was lost because of restaurant shutdowns had to be made up at the grocery store.
"The biggest story for us was the transition from food service or restaurants to retail," said Revier, the fifth-generation owner of the farm. "That was a big shift for us."
When he first heard about the trouble in China, Revier called ranchers raising his cattle out west to tell them to keep the animals longer than usual. By March, restaurants were shutting down across the country, beef prices had fallen by about a third, and his farm was running about half-full as his animals kept grazing in the Dakotas and eastern Montana.
The Revier model of raising cows in a specific way for a unique brand of beef is one strategy for weathering the vagaries of cattle farming. But amid a pandemic that has reshaped the way Americans get their food, it has been tested. And it's an option that's only available to big farms.
"We're about as small as you can be to do what we've done," Revier said.
Revier's great-great-grandfather started the farm in 1867 and it was a classic diversified, small operation — cows, turkeys, hogs.
Now Revier can raise about 10,000 Black Angus cattle in Olivia at any one time. Compared to feedlots in Kansas, Texas and other states to the west, the operation is small. It's massive for Minnesota, though.
Revier, who pushed the Black Angus angle at his family farm, tried to start his own brand of beef called Medallion.
"When I first did Medallion I didn't want to put my name on a box," Revier said. "What I did back then was really vertical. We tried to do it all ourselves. We did the delivery, the selling, from the packing plant to distribution and sales. We learned that what we're really good at is farming and producing cattle. That's what we do best."
Having scrapped the brand, Revier still wanted to brand his beef to get a better price, and when he met a former Cargill executive named Paul Hillen, he found a kindred spirit.
Hillen, who was also a veteran of Procter & Gamble, was working in private equity at the time and brought distribution and marketing experience to the Revier farm.
The beef was the "high-quality, sustainable" beef Revier advertises now, but it was sold into the commodity beef market.
"He was selling his cattle to other packing plants, but they were kind of trading off of his story," Hillen said.
Revier put his name on the box in November 2017. They now send the cattle to a packinghouse in Aberdeen, S.D., where the meat is cut into wholesale ribs, shipped under the Revier brand and sold through regional distributors.
"We started working with packers without cattle, packing our cattle and beef, and using distribution and supply chain pieces that already existed," Revier said. "We didn't need to own delivery trucks."
By the time COVID-19 hit, Revier was selling meat in 21 states, 300 grocery stores, and more than 2,500 restaurants. Last fall, they started selling to Cub Foods, where some beef in the service case is from Revier, and they launched Revier ground beef at Cub in the spring.
Some workers at the Aberdeen packinghouse contracted COVID-19 and the operation had to reduce production. But unlike hog farmers, cattle producers can leave the animals grazing and take them to slaughter at a later time. Revier got back to full capacity in early May.
Revier and Hillen stress the consistency of their meat. Cows get different diets in different parts of the country, so the meat at the grocery store can taste different on different days.
Revier cows always eat the same diet — ground corn and corn bran and distiller's grains in all different shades of brown and yellow.
In Minnesota, some of the biggest farms — the Riverview and Lewiston dairies, for instance — come under the most criticism from environmental groups. But their scale does allow them to do things smaller farmers can't.
The manure from the pens and barns gets flushed into a treatment plant that separates the liquid from the solid. They get fertilizer and fuel for methane from the liquid while the fluffy solid is used for bedding for other livestock.
Like the owners of the Riverview dairies not too far away, Revier wants to convert methane into clean natural gas. For now, the raw gas is flared from pits covered in black tarps.
The cows are big but timid, shying away from visitors, even Hillen and Revier.
Their pens are clean and the concrete is grooved so they can't slip as easily. Keeping the cows calm reduces stress and makes the meat more tender, Revier said.
The hope right now is that customers will notice the difference and keep paying a little extra for their beef.
"People want to know where their food comes from — or at least I think they do," Revier said. "How it's raised, where it comes from."
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz