Monday, August 31, 2015

Letter from Langdon: Niche Pork


“Somebody’s misfortune is also somebody’s benefit.”

That's the way Travis Dunekacke of Elk Creek, Nebraska, sums up his business, TD Niche Pork. He sells heirloom pork directly to consumers.

The “misfortune” is that diversified family farms have lost the ability to sell hogs into fair and transparent livestock markets. Consequently, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) hog production has become the rule instead of an exception.

But into that controlled market atmosphere a new consumer, and a new type of hog producer, have been born. And therein lies the “benefit.”

Travis has found discerning consumers in the meat-and-potatoes bread basket of America. He's been able to build his business in a pretty unlikely spot, right square on the buckle of the Midwestern corn belt where commodity pork is supposed to be king.

Photo by Richard Oswald A pen of red wattles, left, with some of Ryan Coswert certified Berkshires on the right.

“Other operators around me are trying to mimic the industrialized food system,” Travis said. “They want to sell pork to Japan or Korea. I ship my pork within 80 miles of where the hogs are raised (to local markets).”

One of the things that makes his business so good is the fact it's small. Undeveloped markets with small consumer bases don't attract attention from hog conglomerates because they lack a big market share. That makes them perfect incubators for specialized producers like Travis.

No one can say Travis doesn't have opinions. Take this one for instance: “My feeling is we are the wealthiest people in the world. Why don't we produce the products our people want and consume them here?” Travis says that leaders in the U.S. pork industry (expansion minded agriculture likes to equate itself with extraction and construction types of businesses by calling themselves an industry) say we need to make food more convenient. That ignores consumer preference and markets that beg to be sold into. For those markets, the mantra is less about cheap product and more about providing the quality that consumers want to buy.

Photo by Richard Oswald Mike McNelly, left, and Travis Dunekacke.

Southeastern Nebraska seems an unlikely spot to find upscale buyers. While Travis’ farm is in a very rural area, there are 12 small meat processing plants within 75 miles of it. Even more crucial to his farm plan is that three of those are USDA inspected. Most importantly they have the capacity it takes to meet market demand.

That’s good because lack of inspected processing facilities is one of the greatest hurdles farm to consumer direct marketed food must overcome.

Also within that roughly 60 mile radius are several restaurants as well as the two largest Nebraska cities, Lincoln and Omaha. Upscale restaurants in places like that boast chefs who relish having an entire hog for head-to-tail unique and flavorful culinary creations. “Local restaurants here are independently owned,” Travis said. “They aren't corporate. Half of them are upscale. I love high-end restaurants, but there's only so many of those. Even though only certain restaurants will take a whole pig, I'm fortunate enough to have several.”

Photo by Richard Oswald Travis watches Ryan unload Berk pigs into one of travis pens.

Travis’ ultimate goal (he's not that big yet) is producing $250,000 worth of flavorful pork off a measly five acres of wasteland on the family farm. The land once belonged to his grandparents. Helping him meet his goal is Ryan Coswert, a part-time Berkshire breeder from Braymer, Missouri. Ryan raises certified Berkshire feeder pigs from 55 head of sows. All his hogs are farrowed in A-huts, outside, on dirt. That's a big divergence from the industrial model, where sows move from cage to cage, first tiny gestation stalls then into farrowing crates and back again.

Ryan's was the largest certified herd of Berkshires last year in the entire state of Missouri.

Ryan doesn't want to feed his pigs to slaughter weight, and Travis doesn't want to be bogged down with a breeding herd and farrowing his own pigs. So Travis buys all the pigs Ryan can produce.

For guys like Travis and Ryan, being competitive isn’t the big deal it is for Big Pig, where fast, cheap gains and a quick turnaround rule the business plan. That's because the product they produce is something unique, something people truly want to buy rather than simply being the cheapest thing on the shelf.



Pork farmers of the middle?

    I always hate to hear talk of one farmer's misfortune being another's gain.  Personally, I would like to see all of our farmers prosper and a return to vibrant rural communities.  Would it be possible for Daily Yonder to get more information on the Pork Farmer of the Middle?  Looking at stats, pork farmer numbers have declined in a similar fashion to those in my area of dairy farming.  Millions in the 1950's to about 67,000 today.  Casting anybody who is not niche as "Big Pig" doesn't really help rural America IMHO.  I'm looking at stats of some 48,200 pork farmers under 200 pigs, 4,800 in the 200 to 999 bracket; 2,600 in the 1,000 to 1,999 brackeet, 3,600 in the 2,000 to 3,999 bracket and 8,500 in the 4,000 plus bracket.  There are thousands of pork producers who could rightfully be called "Pork Farmers of the Middle".

    Who are these farmers?  What are the specific constraints they face? Did they testify at the antitrust hearings? Who speaks for them?  What are the kinds of marketing structures that might help the smaller and mid-sized pork farmers?  I will be buying 1/2 a pig from my neighbor and I like a good niche pig as well as the next meat eater....but what of the farmers of the middle?  Will the pork producing states see further depopulation of rural areas as we have in dairy? Any pork farmers reading this?