Thundering Hooves organic beef business closes

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WALLA WALLA -- Thundering Hooves, the pasture-finished, organic beef operation that became a model of sustainability and staple of the Walla Walla locavore movement, closed down in March amid financial tumult.

Though demand for the beef, poultry and pork products had grown exponentially, the operation had been overwhelmed by debt and the clash of a changing internal culture, co-owner Joel Huesby said.

Faithful customers were notified via newsletter March 14 in what was labeled the "final edition."

"Due to unfortunate financial circumstances Thundering Hooves LLC is ceasing all operations immediately," the notice read. "All existing orders and all new orders for our products will not be filled or delivered. We are extremely sorry to inform you with this news and for any inconvenience this may cause you. There may be a limited amount of inventory that will become available. Check the website for updates.

"Thank you all for your business, your confidence in us and our products, and your friendship."

Huesby, said he doesn't intend for that to be the last word on the family farming operation.

"The dream remains alive," he said.

Huesby said Thundering Hooves had seen demand shoot up 350 percent between last spring and fall, fueled particularly by its foray onto grocery store shelves and on more restaurant menus, especially on the west side of the state. The company founded on the principles of raising its own meats began purchasing more of its products on the commodities market. With commodities at their highest rate in history, Huesby said Thundering Hooves got behind on payments to creditors helping with the financing.

Evidence of such was a lawsuit filed late last month in Walla Walla County Superior Court in which two couples claimed they lent Thundering Hooves significant amounts of money that had not been repaid.

Huesby said the original vision became obscured when demand exploded. "It got away from that, in part, because you get dollar signs in your eyes and, in part, you get massive demand.

"The ability to finance that growth needs to come from earnings, not additional debt," he said. "The growth has to come much more measured and disciplined."

He said he had been working on re-organizing the company to try and head off closure since January. He had downsized from 21 employees to about three.

Though many commercial customers were aware the company had hit hard times, word of its closure was a shock. Damon and Colby Burke, owners of Salumiere Cesario, were thankful to fill their St. Patrick's Day orders of beef brisket before the closure. They had planned to use any leftover beef for their corned beef and Reuben sandwiches, as well as their pulled pork sandwiches, all served exclusively with Thundering Hooves meats.

"They filled a niche in this valley that was greatly needed -- they were the only local company providing real farm to table pasture-raised meats (rather than the alternative which often means getting it from a large food service provider)," Salumiere owners said in an e-mail.

Andrae Bopp, owner of mobile kitchen AK's, said on busy weeks he'd been going through as much as 100 pounds of Thundering Hooves meat -- about half of that was ground beef, he said.

He anticipated a search for a new provider. But he said the cost may be higher, especially if the meat has to be trucked in from the west side of the state. "I'm bummed," Bopp said. "I just hope that this is maybe a temporary thing. Maybe a new investor or new blood can come back in."

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