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Ovoka Farm’s treasured cattle.
Ovoka Farm

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The ‘Badass Bitches of Beef’ Help Run Virginia’s Most In-Demand Wagyu Farm

Michelin-rated and top restaurants all over town are vying for a piece of Ovoka Farm’s prized meat

On a clear day, Karen Way can just make out the Washington Monument from the peak of her bucolic, 700-acre farm in Paris, Virginia, an unincorporated community in Fauquier County that’s easy to overlook on a map. Way’s historic Ovoka Farm, which dates back to a 1731 land grant, loosely translates to “ever-running water.”

From its verdant pastures, Way and her small team raise beef cattle — mostly F-1 wagyu and full-blood wagyu — giving area chefs a rare, local source for the prized commodity that typically requires a massive carbon footprint.

Ovoka Farm’s cows grazing in the distance at sunset.
Ovoka Farm

Wagyu, the Japanese cattle breed known for its intramuscular fat and resulting supple texture, is the most expensive beef in the world. It’s a product synonymous with luxury, which makes it no surprise to find Ovoka’s wagyu beef on the menu at D.C. restaurants like Sushi Taro, Michelin-rated Crane’s, and Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery, the fledgling sibling of superstar chef Patrick O’Connell’s lauded Inn at Little Washington.

After trying wagyu for the first time, Karen and her husband, Guy Morgan, decided to raise the breed on the Northern Virginia farm they purchased in 2008. It’s a stone’s throw from Wildcat Hollow, a little slice of Shenandoah Valley where Morgan spent childhood summers with his grandparents. At the time, the couple had just moved to Virginia to pursue a more pastoral way of life after careers in law and energy in Chicago.

Way and Morgan ordered wagyu embryos from Japan and inseminated their first Angus host cows in 2010. They quickly learned that wagyu cattle are, in many ways, a different breed.

Raising wagyu cattle presents a unique set of challenges.
Ovoka Farm
Remnants of Ovoka Farm’s original stone structure are still seen under the farmhouse, which dates back to the 1730s.
Ovoka Farm

“Not just in flavor and marbling but in their personality,” Way says. “Wagyu are smart, scrappy, temperamental — and they can jump. Even the multi-generation cattle farmers admitted they had never experienced a breed like this before.”

They decided to raise F1 cows by crossing a 50/50 mix of Angus and wagyu cattle.

“It’s the perfect amount of marbling. It retains the Angus flavor profile, so it’s a bolder flavor,” Way says.

Crossing wagyu with Angus another benefit: Cuts previously deemed undesirable are more tender thanks to that interstitial fat. (They also kept keep a few full-blood wagyu on the farm for the chefs and other customers who desire purely wagyu meat.)

One of its first D.C. clients was Equinox chef Todd Gray, who started plating Ovoka’s product at his decades-old downtown stalwart this spring. Gray immediately jumped at Ovoka’s offer to sample all its various cuts, and found the tri-tip to be his favorite, most applicable cut. “The meat can be cut with a fork,” he says.

Equinox chef Todd Gray started serving Ovoka’s tri-tip cuts this years.
Todd Gray

At his hyper-seasonal restaurant next to the White House, Gray treats the meat to a 24-hour sous vide bath alongside herbs, garlic, and olive oil and often adds a touch of soy, star anise, and black garlic. This summer at Equinox, the tri-tip joined a cherry tomato salad, and this fall he plans to add chanterelles and kabocha squash.

Way was raising her two kids and practicing law full-time before taking on full responsibility for the cattle operation in 2020. She expanded the business from a direct-to-consumer model to one that included wholesale and retail sales. To help with that new piece of the business, she brought on her friend, Jessica Morton, whose experience opening and managing Lidl stores was a boon to Ovoka.

Way and Morton have an easy rapport, and it’s no stretch to imagine them, like a kind of barnyard Lucy and Ethel, lugging buckets of feed to the over 300 heads of cattle on the farm. After one such winter morning, their fingers frozen, their boots slicked with mud and slush, the duo dubbed themselves, “The Badass Bitches of Beef,” or BABS for short — an acronym proudly displayed on the license plates of their farm trucks.

Morton came on board as chief operating officer of Ovoka in spring 2021, and she hit the ground running. She spent mornings answering emails and feeding cows, drove all over Virginia and D.C. to meet with chefs to introduce their product, and devoted most of her waking minutes to wondering, with Way: What’s next?

They knew Ovoka’s F-1 and full-blood wagyu would appeal to Virginia chefs, so on car trips across the state for processing, they brainstormed their approach. Way researched the restaurants that might be a fit, and Morton made the pitches. It wasn’t long before chefs at restaurants like Field & Main in Marshall, Virginia, and Red House Tavern in Haymarket started getting excited about the product.

“It was really cool that they recognized our hard work because it tasted good, and it was in all these amazing, beautiful restaurants,” Way says. “They get it, and they understand how important raising it is.”

At Dauphine’s in downtown’s sleek new Midtown Center complex, chef Kristen Essig uses Ovoka’s wagyu beef for the New Orleans-themed restaurant’s charcuterie program. She slowly salt-cures the eye of round until it transforms into bresaola.

“The thing that really drew me to working with [Ovoka] was not only that they were local but that they were a woman-run business,” says Essig. “That’s a really important part of what they do, and it showed.”

After building up a base of restaurants, Ovoka turned to a retail model approach as an additional revenue stream. That meant selling at farmer’s markets like Eastern Market in D.C., Western Loudoun Farmers Market, and the Historic Manassas Market, among others.

“We cut steaks out of pretty much the whole cow, which means we have delicious steaks that we can offer at every price point,” says Way.

Introducing Virginia-raised F-1 and full-blood wagyu to a wider market of home cooks required some education. Morton drew on her retail background to come up with language to describe this type of meat to consumers. They toyed with cheeky names for their steak kits, emphasizing the rare tenderness of otherwise tough cuts of meat. Cuts like a Sierra steak (from the chuck) and a Santa Fe steak (from the round) are affordable alternatives to flank, a farmer’s market favorite.

But eventually, Morton and Way realized that the best way to represent Ovoka’s beef was with the simplest language possible. It aligned with Ovoka’s commitment to transparency. So, they ditched the cutesy names and leaned into the term F-1, patiently explaining to customers what that meant and why it mattered.

“Wagyu is not regulated in the U.S.,” Way explains. “Whereas there are only certain breeds of bovine that you can call ‘heritage,’ you can call anything that has even a smidgen of wagyu in it a ‘wagyu animal’ for production purposes.”

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ovoka forms the western boundary of fertile Piedmont and extends into the breathtaking Shenandoah Valley.
Ovoka Farm

As Ovoka continued to grow throughout 2021, they knew they needed another essential component to their team — an experienced farm manager. That’s where Roy Lambert came in. A native of Virginia, Lambert worked in agricultural retail for 28 years. He says he jumped at the chance to work with Ovoka in their startup phase, where his extensive knowledge around raising cattle could prove invaluable.

Most beef cattle operations are what’s known as “cow-calf,” which means a heifer has a calf, and that calf is raised on the farm for about two years before being sold into the meat production program. At Ovoka, calves are set aside and raised to weigh around the size of a smart car — about 1,500 to 1,600 pounds — at which point they’re processed for beef. That way, unlike their competitors, Lambert explains, “we know what goes in it, from beginning to end, whereas what you get at the store, you don’t know what they’ve done with it. Our claim to fame is non-GMO and all-natural. Everything that goes in is clean.”

Since coming on board full-time this spring, Lambert has introduced systems, such as pasture rotation, to improve efficiency on the farm, but he hasn’t messed around with the important stuff.

“We still hand feed our cattle daily, and that’s not going to change because, with the wagyu, they love that interaction,” says Lambert. “They produce better that way. In Japan, they even play music for them. We haven’t gone that far, but doing the same thing with them daily is critical because we want that daily gain.”

Streamlining systems on the farm has allowed Way and Morton the chance to focus on a new revenue stream — agritourism. A $2.2 billion sector of Virginia’s economy, the industry is now more popular than ever, with Northern Virginia representing the highest revenue-generating region of the state.

Ovoka’s stunning historic grounds offer a natural setting for tours, events, and private dinners. Ovoka can host groups of 50 to 60 guests at a time to learn about the operations on the farm before enjoying a sampling of wagyu beef prepared by local chefs. Over the next few months, Ovoka will host a tour for kids and their caregivers to connect with animals on the farm, a scenic tour that ends in a catered picnic, and Virginia whiskey and wagyu tasting with Ovoka’s resident chef.

A panoramic view of the scenic road leading up to Ovoka Farm.
Ovoka Farm

They’re also developing history-focused tours to highlight the Revolutionary and Civil War history that the farm is steeped in. With rising grain prices and already slim margins, Way says agritourism is an essential part of the operation.

“Farms have to find other sources of revenue,” Way explains. “Enter agritourism. Without it, it doesn’t matter how many steaks you sell. That additional revenue is essential.”

Chefs regularly make the easy, hour-long’s drive from D.C. for a taste and tour of the wagyu farm before buying a product that was previously synonymous with faraway fields in Japan.

“We want them to know what we’re doing out here, so that they tell the story to their customers,” says Way.

Ovoka Farm has its own street name.
Ovoka Farm

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