Meat is King; Cooper Farms Rises to Challenge

For Cooper Farms, a diversified pork, turkey and chicken business, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been all doom and gloom. Gary Cooper, chief operating officer at Cooper Farms, sat down with AgriTalk’s Chip Flory at Farm Journal Field Days in Bryan, Ohio, to discuss diversification, COVID-19 and the future of the livestock industry.

Cooper Farms started in 1938 when Virgil Cooper began his turkey business with 300 turkeys. Since the 1970s, Gary Cooper, his brother Jim and sister Diane have been taking the business to new heights. Today the company includes two hatcheries, meat processing plants, egg processing plants, feed mills and 2,300 employees who contribute to the production of their turkeys, hogs and chickens.

“We produce about 300 million live pounds of turkey a year and 800,000 live hogs. The hogs all go to the new Clemens plant in Coldwater, Mich., that we partnered in with the Clemens family from Hatfield, Pa. We keep about 4.5 to 5 million chicken layers and we also have not only retail carton eggs, but liquid egg as well.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented demand disruption in the protein industry, what kind of challenges did it create for you? Flory asked. 

“It's been both bad and good as you can imagine,” Cooper told Flory. “The bulk of our business is in the retail side, so our business exploded. We’ve had some monster weeks of production.”

They’ve even picked up some new business as other suppliers have been cutting customers short. However, Cooper Farms has experienced challenges, too.

“We've had some positives in our operations. We have worked our way through that and never had to shut down. We just made it work,” he said. “Now, talk about American heroes. Our people came in religiously every day, six days a week. We were just blown away.”

At one point, they were about 35 loads of market hogs behind in early May. Within two to three weeks, Cooper said the plant got them caught up. 

An opportunity for growth
From a protein standpoint, Cooper said meat is the king right now. With food service and restaurant sales down, sales for burgers, hotdogs, steaks and chops are at somewhat all-time highs, he said.

“On the pork side, I think people have discovered that they can cook pork at home themselves for the first time,” Flory said.

Cooper agreed. On the turkey side, he’s seen more interest in turkey burgers during the pandemic. When all the beef burgers and the pork chops disappeared off the shelves, people were looking around the meat case and found the turkey burger.

“Our turkey burger business has just skyrocketed. I think people thought the same thing, ‘Oh, I can cook these, they taste good and they are healthy for you,’” Cooper added. 

Listen to his full interview on AgriTalk.

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