For this installment of Behind the Scenes Heroes, we’re taking you to Norfolk County to meet the Van Groningen family – the Ontario all-stars behind Feast ON Preferred Purveyor VG Meats.
As we’ve said before, we love what they’re doing at VG Meats. They’re internationally respected leaders and innovators in their field(s) and are helping to raise the bar for transparency in the local food system. That, and they make some Very Good steaks!
Recently, we chatted with Cory Van Groningen about the VG Meats model and how they’re never content to rest on their laurels. For the past decade, the family has been working with BIO (Bridging Intelligence Opportunities), which helps farmers make important breeding decisions based on raw farm data. A few years ago, VG Meats received a grant from the Ontario government to help implement new systems of traceability for Ontario beef farmers.
Working with BIO Links software developed in Alberta and adopting the stricter traceability standards used in Europe, VG Meats became the first Ontario beef farm to track their animals all the way from the farm to the fork. They’re able to trace individual cuts of beef back to a specific animal and that animal’s farm of origin. What’s more – they provide that information directly to the consumer via their Meat Mentor app. Of course, the most important question for any steak-lover is how that piece of meat is going to taste. And yes, VG Meats has you covered there too with their tenderness scoring system. We wrote about it here!
Tenderness testing is a relatively new approach in the cattle industry (Meat Standards Australia was used as a model for VG) and a move away from the general perception that marbling indicates quality. As Cory points out, “marbling could be created by over-feeding cattle and that isn’t good for the farming industry”. For the Van Groningens, the tenderness testing system provides a more sustainable method of grading than the traditional one. It’s also a more complex model for determining quality and involves tracking a wide number of variables, many of which have never been tracked before. This is part of why pioneering tenderness testing is so exciting for Cory, who says “it’s amazing what we’ll be able to learn this way”. They’re also working on providing this information for pork and lamb producers.
Speaking of those farmers, in addition to raising their own herd, the Van Groningens work with close to 50 families of small-medium producers who receive premiums based on the tenderness of their product. Many of those families used to sell direct but according to Cory, “they’re happier sending their product to a program like ours that rewards quality and has integrity.” For these smaller producers, who might not be able to afford the auditing systems in place at VG, the value of working with the Van Groningens cannot be understated.
Farmers that sell through the VG Meats program have access to their tenderness scores, receive report cards and get recommendations on how to improve the quality of their cuts of beef. That level of detail and care is one of the hallmarks of the Van Groningen’s approach and is helping make a name for themselves in the commercial beef industry.
As a Board Member for Beef Farmers of Ontario, Cory is passionate about identifying the barriers and opportunities to increase the number of beef farmers in the province and establish farming communities in new areas. He’s also working with the Greenbelt to explore other cuts of meat that could be cost-efficient for use in a restaurant setting, without compromising tenderness. Very Good work indeed.
Since we had an expert on hand, we thought we’d ask Cory a few rapid-fire questions:
OCTA: What is your favourite cut of beef?
CV: Rib-eye steak. It works really well for our family. We�re promoting steak sharing and this could work well at restaurants.
OCTA: What is the most underappreciated cut of meat in your opinion?
My wife is in a book club, and they meet once a month. When they came over to our house, we did a steak tasting so I took four lesser known cuts and served them up. Their favourite was the skirt steak. I also love the pichana – it’s slightly different than a skirt steak and also known as a top sirloin cap.
OCTA: Where is your favourite place on the farm?
When it’s summertime, we calve cows when the grass is growing and we check the cows every 4-6 hours to make sure everything is good. The midnight check of the cows is quite peaceful� all you hear are the crickets!