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The idea of owning a farm-to-fork operation is one many pork producers may have thought about but quickly discarded as being too financially risky and tough to navigate, especially with regard to finding buyers, creating a dependable distribution channel, and navigating government regulations.
It certainly involves all of those things and more, says David Newman. But in the late 1990s his family staked their claim on the opportunity, and they’ve never looked back.
Today, the family operates a purebred Berkshire, farrow-to-finish hog operation that caters to high-end restaurants and retail outlets throughout the country from the East Coast to the West Coast.
The farm offers a big suite of products to customers. “We supply people who make prosciutto hams, people who make charcuterie…a lot of food service business in the fresh meat sector, but also processed meat as well,” Newman says. He operates the farm in conjunction with his wife, Kristin, who manages the financials for the business; children, Ava and Cody; and his mom and her husband, who live nearby.
Transparency with customers
While the meat quality aspect of the business is critically important, building and retaining relationships are a huge component of what’s made the operation successful. But how does a buyer’s business get retained year-after-year? Newman says part of the answer is having a story that buyers can relate to, that resonates with them and that they can feel good about when they put a piece of pork on a dinner plate and serve it.
“We engage with customers at a level that some people might say is almost crazy in transparency, but I think this is important regardless of size or type of production,” he says. “Our customers are really passionate about knowing how our pigs were raised. They want to hear about what we do and why we do it.”
Consumers increasingly want that production transparency, according to a 2019 report by Technomic, a Chicago-based business-to-business company focused on the U.S. food and beverage industry. Their survey of 1,700 consumers found that “44%of consumers who often eat pork say it’s important they eat pork that came from animals treated humanely.”
An overview of the report is available here: 2019 Center of the Plate: Beef and Pork Consumer Trend Report
A focus on animal wellbeing
While a beautiful chop from one of the Newman family’s pigs is the end product resulting from years of disciplined attention to genetics, muscling and marbling, the family operates knowing that the quality of life for the animals is equally important to buyers.
A high quality of life starts with how the farm manages its sows. “We use open-pen housing—deep-bedded hoop buildings with straw—and no farrowing crates,” Newman says. All animals on the farm have access to pasture. The latter is unique for many of today’s hog operations, but pasture is readily available in the Missouri Ozarks where the Newman family farms, near Myrtle.
Newman, president of the National Pork Board and an associate professor of animal sciences at Arkansas State University, puts a PhD in meat science and muscle biology to work as he evaluates breeding stock for the farm, which is PRRS negative. He emphasizes leg and feet soundness--the herd has no lameness issues. He also looks for good, durable genetics that will produce what he calls an adequate-sized litter. The farm typically weans eight to 10 pigs per sow.
“We aren’t chasing 35 PSY—that’s not our focus,” Newman says. “More pigs per litter is great, but I’d rather have numbers that are healthy on the bottom line that we can push through our system and deliver to our customers without sacrificing quality or any of the characteristics we’ve selected for the past 30 years.”
Breed selection plays a valued role in Newman’s view on how to achieve quality. “We've found over the years that to make a consistently high-quality product that has the tenderness, juiciness and flavor that our customers want, we stick with the Berks,” he says. “That’s what pays dividends for our family and our customers and our employees as well.”
Profitability and marketing
Good treatment of pigs is second nature to most hog producers. It’s also good business and is part of the profitability equation for the Newmans. “We do have some label claims, including a humane label, and we run an antibiotic-free program,” he notes. Label claims are not unique to the business, and they’re not unique to the meat business in general. The claims are simply another facet of the Newman family’s pork-production story and are always well-received by customers.
With regard to profitability, Newman says his business doesn’t sell its products based on the USDA five-day rolling average, like some contracts. While he doesn’t give specific dollars and cents, what he does share speaks volumes. “We have not had a carcass weight price change in two years,” he says.
That’s a far cry from commercial hog prices that bounced between many lows and few highs in 2019. Fortunately, 2020 looks a bit brighter. The January USDA Market Outlook predicts that hog prices will “average $54.50 per cwt, about 14 percent higher than prices last year, reflecting strong processor demand for hogs, continued solid domestic pork demand, and U.S. pork exports growth of about 13 percent above volumes shipped in 2019.”
A world-class eating experience
The farm’s success as a so-called niche operation took years to build, and Newman doesn’t take that for granted. “We had slow success early on, and that’s the tough part about the farm-to-fork movement,” he notes.
If he could change anything about that early period of the business, it would be hiring a sales or marketing individual to help. “That’s something I wish we’d done sooner and would tell other producers is a good investment,” he says. “You can’t do all of this on your own.”
Looking back, Newman says the farm got its first big break working with Heritage Foods by delivering what was promised—a world-class eating experience that the family believes exceeds what a piece of chicken can achieve and rivals the finest cuts of beef.
“I believe that we can offer a better eating experience than steak. I really do,” he says.
Newman believes other pork producers can as well. “There are more things that make us alike than make us different,” he says. It starts with producing a great product and telling your story.