Letter from Langdon: Break with ‘Tradition’ Creates New Opportunities in Pork
For a generation, the pork industry has been trying to turn hogs into chickens. This Nebraska farmer has found a market niche by letting hogs look, act, and taste like hogs.
Travis Dunekacke, a farm-to-consumer pork entrepreneur from Elk Creek, Nebraska, reminded me of what I already knew.
Real pork isn’t the other white meat.
It’s pork. And that’s good.
Travis and I have exchanged a lot of emails about farming, farmers, and raising pork. This article is an informal compilation of the insights he has shared with me over the years.
Travis lives in one of those small rural communities (Elk Creek, Nebraska, population 98) that are so small they barely register on any national scale. But Nebraska, like neighboring states of Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, is full of small towns and 35-mile-per-hour speed limit Main Streets bisected by the center lines of lightly traveled state highways.
Travis and I met several years ago. He was a member of a small group, Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM). I was one of the directors, and he invited me for a cup of coffee and some talk about where OCM was headed. He also wanted me to try choice cut pork chops from one of the Berkshire hogs he’d raised himself on his family’s farm.
I hadn’t eaten much pork since I stopped raising hogs during the legendary U.S. farm consolidation days of the 1980’s. That was at about the same time the National Pork Producers Council copyrighted their landmark marketing promotion phrase, “Pork, the other white meat.”
Hog-market integrators identified what they thought was a problem, that pig farmers were losing market share to poultry. Consumers preferred chicken over pork, and the answer to that problem was to chickenize pork production to the point that consumers couldn’t tell them apart.
That’s the reason I quit eating pork. If the product I bought resembled chicken in color and taste, then why not just buy chicken in the first place? The new product didn’t satisfy my taste for pork.
Travis reminded me that pork isn’t chicken. Travis’ pork chops were darker, juicier, and more flavorful than grocery store chops. They were like the pork I raised 40 years ago.
“Farmers and pigs share something in common. Both like wide open spaces and dirt. And both are happiest when that preference is fulfilled.”
Travis told me he really didn’t have hogs in his resume before he started in the business. Ironically, that lack of experience was an asset. It allowed him to follow his own plan, instead of feeling that he had to conform to tradition or convention.
“Except for three years of 4H pigs, I didn’t grow up around hogs,” he said. “I loved to be around them, though, at other farms and the county fair as a kid. I didn’t have a blue print on the ‘way we’ve always done it.’“
Other than large hog confinements, there aren’t many hog producers left in this part of America. But cattle remain popular among declining numbers of farmers even though most beef markets are ultimately under the control of a few large packers. Travis pointed out that conventional wisdom of the packer-dominated business today isn’t what he learned from his grandfather.
“In my area, and certainly west and south of here, there’s a large number of under-45 age guys that would love to … expand their cow-calf herds. Children of former grain-livestock-hay farms that now only raise grain are usually not good candidates. (That’s because they’ve lost the accumulated knowledge of generations of livestock production) They’ve had a steady diet of propaganda from their opinionated dads on what they’re not going to do again. I do have that with cow-calf. You’ll never see me calve in the winter.”
But he doesn’t have similar hard-nosed beliefs about pork. When it gets right down to it, there is no wrong way, with the right way being what works for the individual.
Most farmers do their best when doing what they prefer.
“When I was 12, I thought we should start calving in February and March. (The gestation period for cattle is a nearly identical to human – nine months.) My dad listened and moved the breeding season to start in May. By the time I was in high school it was more fun staying in bed late on cold winter mornings.”
But not all farmers feel the same about work. Calving is intense, 24 hour a day, seven days a week work. Calving cows may need help with delivery, new born calves may need treatment for bacterial disease or maybe just help learning to nurse. There are snowstorms, cold rainy spells, mud. Not everyone wants to brave weather and challenging work like this on a daily basis. Travis understands that, but the fact remains that hard work is the inspiration that motivates many farmers. “Today though, my dad still prefers to start calving in late winter” he told me.
That doesn’t mean Travis avoids work. He just likes different work. Travis’ dad didn’t mind cold nights in the calving shed. But chances are his dad wouldn’t be comfortable hawking farm-to-market products to restaurant owners and consumers.
It’s not a job for everyone. That’s because today’s trends toward conservation through cover crops or controlled grazing require a new, different mindset. Today’s agriculture has evolved into something more intensive than a decade or two back when land was the most plentiful, most abundant asset American farmers had. Modern methods that rely on global position satellites and computer controlled applications of fertilizer and pesticides are foreign to older farmers raised to till the soil. They may find it difficult to shed older cultures and change to something that seems totally irrelevant.
Travis explains the way some farmers have evolved, or want to, this way.
“The biggest objection I hear over and over from grain only farmers, regardless of size, is ALWAYS the same. “WE DON’T HAVE COWS ANYMORE.” Then a moment later “I DON’T HAVE TIME TO BUILD/FIX FENCE OR HAUL WATER.” Row crop farmers must be ready when the calendar and weather agree. Distractions by livestock are not welcome when it’s time to plant corn.
And those who have weathered low prices and government programs designed to reduce surpluses have learned to defend their land no matter what. The older we are, the tighter we hold on to farms we have devoted our lives to. Supplemental fertilizers like phosphorous and potassium were considered inexpensive as recently as 10 years ago. They were easy to replace in depleted soil. Land management today requires farmers to make a stricter accounting for crops that remove those nutrients. That raises costs, which in turn requires farmers to look for alternative ways to boost fertility while protecting fragile soils through conservation tillage and no till. As those alternatives are adopted, older generations can see it as a rebuke of their management style when in reality it is simply a new way of doing business–here’s Travis again:
“It is very difficult for them to comprehend that someone else, most likely a younger guy getting started, would be on THEIR land. Even more painful is the fact that the grazier may benefit from it FINANCIALLY. I could list a notebook page of cow calf operators in this area looking for more grazing land.”
Young farmers have new ideas, new energy, and they bring that to the land. Older farmers may have become hardened and set in their ways. So when young farmers take over, there can be disapproval the young guys interpret as fear that they may show up the older farmer by beating him at his own game.
Early in his pork venture, Travis decided that farrow to finish wasn’t the ideal fit for him. He wanted someone else to keep breeding stock and so that he could produce and market the products consumers wanted. Breeding and farrowing takes more facilities, more time, and it requires more money as producers run what is essentially two separate operations. And farmers aren’t assured that production numbers will be hit. Leaving farrowing to another farmer to do sets Travis free to work on feeding pigs out to slaughter weight and on marketing.
“I don’t hoard work myself. I also don’t have a problem with someone else benefiting from my farm. Many current and former hog farmers ask me in a suggestive tone why I don’t farrow my own pigs. My most basic answer is that it would put two guys out of business. I couldn’t raise pigs any better than what they do. Plus, I have enough to worry about with the sales and collecting money.”
It may not be seen as real work by some farmers, others might simply disdain it, but debt collection for farmers like Travis is an integral part of income.
“Sales are strong,” he said, adding the businessman’s lament: “Slow payers can really mess up the cash flow, though.”
Contract farmers for the likes of Tyson, Smithfield, or Cargill don’t have that concern. They simply house and feed animals they don’t own, for a predetermined paycheck. Another argument in favor of hog confinement is that animals are spared discomfort and inclement weather.
“Despite living in the mud the past three months, my hogs have done well. I’ve lost two Berkshires in extreme heat,” he said.
That’s why commercial hog operations with their enclosed buildings and manure pits say they’re better for animals and farmers alike. But none of those are air conditioned, and when disease like the PED virus strikes there are fatalities in confinement too. That’s just part of being in the livestock business, raising what can be a very perishable commodity. All livestock producers deal with mortality of their herds.
But farmers and pigs share something in common. Both like wide open spaces and dirt. And both are happiest when that preference is fulfilled.
A butcher hog’s life is barely six months, eight at the most. Farmers live longer. And as farmers grow older, gaining experience along the way, their opinions evolve right along with their farming operations. This is how Travis sees future evolution of farming.
“I do believe cover crop/grazing/cash grain is the future of agriculture. It’s going to take 50+ bushel per acre soybeans, 75 bushel per acre+ wheat, 150+ bushel dryland corn, and 250+ bushels irrigated corn to justify running a combine across a field in the near future. Poor yields will not be cost effective.”
Crop yields influence prices of grain that livestock growers like Travis rely on. Depressed grain prices usually lead to oversupply of livestock as growers expand to take advantage of those savings. But the price of grain influences Travis less, because he markets direct to consumers who, when given a choice, tend to buy the specific products they want. He doesn’t force feed a market but offers a service by answering to consumer preference.
Consequently his profits are better than those of more conventional pork producers. It’s part innovation and part rear view mirror.
The map to success Travis follows today has its origins in an older form of agriculture.
“Many days I feel like I’m simply rewriting history. The English have known for 400 years that Berkshire pork tastes great. Red Wattle pork was a French favorite in colonial New Orleans in the 1700’s. Mangalitsa pork was the Austro-Hungarian empire’s royalty choice from the 1830’s on. Red Wattle…they have excellent hams. All of their meat is very dense, tender, and moist.”
But more common breeds have a place in Travis’ operations too.
“It’s worked out great to re-charge some of the Berkshire genetics and get gilts with stronger maternal traits by crossing with Chester White. All of those F1 gilts will be bred back to Berkshire boars…We’ve seen as good or better meat quality with the hybrids. Not that long ago I said there would ‘never be white hogs’ on my farm. That’s what the large confinement operations raise. I must have lightened up a little in the past two years! Genetics is more important than hide color. I researched all of the niche pork programs before starting my business. Niman Ranch was certainly one of them.
Niman pioneered humane livestock raising as a way to appeal to consumer preference. They were a commercial operation that came to the fore after movies like Food Inc. Unfortunately Niman went bankrupt and his Niman Ranch was purchased by Perdue.
“They’ve gone through a lot of changes in the past 10 years. Most Niman Ranch producers do a hybrid of Chester White x Duroc. There’s good lines of meat quality Duroc out there if bought from American farmers. Certain lines of the Spot breed also do well. The popular maternal Yorkshire/Large White breed struggles with meat quality, very poor marbling, and intramuscular fat. Niman Ranch prefers Berkshire in the rotation too, but many farmers are reluctant to do so. The meat quality genetics, especially the Berkshire breed, are much better today compared to 2008 when I first bought feeder pigs.”
To some consumers it’s about feed, too. In response to uncertain consumer feelings about genetically engineered crops and the renewed popularity of one crop on Nebraska dryland fields, Travis avoids GMO controversies by taking advantage of a low-cost alternative to corn: conventionally bred grain sorghum. Grain sorghum has even enjoyed popularity in China where restrictions on genetically engineered corn made it a logical alternative to labeling controversies and imported GMO corn.
He doesn’t care about that. He thinks people should choose for themselves and he doesn’t vilify his competition. Uniform standards seem reasonable.
“Don’t most farm organizations view labeling GMO ingredients on food labels as a ‘threat to modern agriculture’? I do agree that there should be a national standard. There’s a lot of labels now that proclaim to be GMO free.”
Is there hope for a farm revival by people who do what Travis does? Markets can be created if the right people get involved.
“Getting more young folks to raise hogs for these alternative markets really comes down to finding energetic people in the right location. As I’ve mentioned before, grain farming and hog farming rarely mesh any more. I’d say full time employees wanting to just breed and farrow are good candidates. Northwest and north-central Missouri have a lot of these guys already. Most of them raise show pigs right now. Feeder pigs can be shipped on evenings and weekends. Market hogs usually require a set time on a weekday. Cattle and hogs mix well logistically for the young guy who doesn’t have huge grain farming dreams.”
But there can be almost insurmountable preconceptions. If consumers are what they eat, (healthy or not) then farmer’s identity and self-worth is influenced by what they raise.
“It’s tough though, at least in Nebraska, to get cowboys to raise hogs, even though it usually turns about three times the revenue per hour.”
But with competition, in the absence of monopoly, healthy business climates evolve with demand.
“Bring up no more gestation crates, limiting antibiotic use, and non-GMO feed five years ago and the fight was on. With a few exceptions of course, it’s mostly matter of fact now,” Travis said.
That’s the way most farm enterprises work, if they work at all.
Other than markets, animals, land, weather, planning, and labor, there’s just one more thing a successful entrepreneur like Travis requires.
All he needs is time.
Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.