Thrushwood Farms: The People Behind the Pork

( Jennifer Shike, Farm Journal's PORK )

Huddled around a kitchen table 42 years ago, Jim Hankes sketched out a plan on the back of a napkin to build a meat processing plant. What seemed like a far-fetched idea for this 20-something country kid turned into a thriving, award-winning meat processing plant.

“My love for meats started while judging meats in 4-H and FFA,” Jim says. “My parents believed in education and encouraged me to apply for scholarships. I was fortunate to get a county ag scholarship that paid for my four-year tuition at the University of Illinois. There was no way I could have afforded to go otherwise.”

After finishing his bachelor’s degree in animal science and marrying his wife Kae, a home economics and education major, Jim went on to manage the Ag Sales Meat Science Lab and pursue a master’s degree in meat science researching the three layers of backfat on a pig. 

With financial support from their partners — Jim’s brother Ray Hankes and Ray’s brother-in-law Bill Fugate (both pork producers) — Thrushwood Farms construction began in 1977. Kae vividly remembers the day she and Jim quit their jobs at the University of Illinois, sold their house in Urbana and moved to Galesburg to start this new adventure.  

“I was 23 and Jim was 24, both too young to realize fully the adventure we were undertaking,” Kae laughs.

The original plant opened in May 1978 with a retail store and facilities to smoke ham and bacon, make sausage and provide custom processing for their local farm community. In 2019, their facility will double in size to 60,000 square feet. Although the focus of their business has changed some since the 1970s, one thing has not — their focus on the people behind the pork. 

 Snack Sticks

A Willingness to Adapt
Through the years, Thrushwood Farms has adopted a flexible mindset, which has allowed their business to flourish during times when small processors struggled. For example, when farming became more challenging in the 1980s, Jim says their business slowed down so they began catering on the side. In the 1990s, they added deer processing for their customers.

Since 2008, the company has done a robust business in co-packing, and now most of Thrushwood’s sales is from co-packing private-level snack sticks, bars, bites and restructured jerky, also known as ready-to-eat products (RTE). Today they offer a selection of high-quality red meats, as well as smoked items and an extensive array of meat snack sticks for sale through their website and retail store. 

As Thrushwood Farms grew the RTE side of their business, they had to make the difficult decision to close down the kill floor space to make more space for production. It was an economic decision, but Jim says it was hard to stop this service they had provided to customers for so many years. They also closed down their catering business to accommodate the growing demand.  

“You can’t be everything for everybody, and that’s hard,” Jim says. “When you go from what you did to what you do now, you will disappoint some people.”

Although most of their business is now snack sticks, meat bites and jerky, they have expanded their retail store offerings and continue to sell meat at the counter.

“It’s important for us to maintain a strong presence with the store,” Jim says. “When we get co-packing customers in from across country, they love visiting the store and seeing the specialty items we have on the shelves. We believe our store is unique because it allows us to show off our personality through the products we provide for consumers.”

Snack sticks

The Science of Snack Sticks
Jim and Kae’s oldest son, Doug, followed in dad’s footsteps as a student at the University of Illinois studying animal science. He, too, had a passion for livestock and meats judging and found himself traveling the country with his teams. 

“I tested a lot of snack sticks while we were on the road,” Doug says. “And I knew Thrushwood Farms could make a better product.”

After graduating from college, Doug returned to Thrushwood Farms and spent nearly a year working with his dad experimenting, formulating, and sampling to come up with the perfect snack stick.

So, what is the science behind a great snack stick? Jim says it starts with sourcing high-quality pork.

Finding pork with high-quality fat content is critical, as the plant faces production challenges if they use pork with lower quality fat. 

“It starts with quality genetics,” Doug says. “We need to put more intramuscular fat into pork chops so they eat better, but we also need good back fat for making sausage products. Having good raw material is so important to the process.”

Doug adds, “We need pork of all shapes, sizes and everything in between to meet the varied demands of our co-packers. As we co-exist with different brands, we need different pork. Innovation and giving consumers the message that they need to hear allow us to drive value every day.”

Thrushwood is well known for their no-sugar, no nitrite bacon. This has been a key ingredient in their smoked sausages and snack sticks. Once they’ve established a solid meat base, it’s all about finding the right blend of spices to give the meat snack the best flavor possible, Jim says.

“We want to be a leader in the development of all-natural smoked snack sticks,” Doug says. “A lot of people are turning to no smoke or liquid smoke, but if you want the real smokehouse flavor, we can provide it with our process at Thrushwood without the commercial-formulated nitrites.” 

Once they’ve determined the right flavor, the scientists have their fun with the next step.

“We have to create a finished product with the right water activity and pH,” Jim says. “Even the smoke process requires the right temperature, drying the product correctly, getting moisture to escape the center of the snack stick without hardening the casing. We carefully monitor air flow, humidity and government regulations. And then there’s the co-packer requirements — making sure we use what they claim their product uses.”

By 2020, they plan to double their snack stick production to 50 million sticks a year with the added space. It’s possible they could even double their facility size again in the not-too-distant future.

“Kae and I want to pass on a modern facility to our kids,” Jim says. “We don’t want it to be a burden, we want it to have value. We are also devoted to building a team of leaders in the next generation. You can’t pass the torch if you don’t let go.”

TF 1

It All Comes Back to People
Like his father, Doug has always had an entrepreneurial itch. One of the reasons they are expanding is to allow Thrushwood Farms to become a hub of innovation, Doug says. To assist co-packers in developing new products, they maintain a small set of equipment to allow them to test products in small batches.

“We want to help our co-packers develop their next big idea,” Doug says. “Our ‘innovation corridor’ will have devoted space for brainstorming new concepts with our clients.”

There are endless ways to add value to pork from the farm to the fork. And meat snacks are exclusively value-added, Doug says. 

“We’re packaging meat bites in a bag so they’re poppable like popcorn,” Doug says. “We’re positioning meat snacks by the trail mix in gas stations as a better alternative to chips. We’re blending fruits and vegetables into meat bars for a meal on-the-go. Pork provides a great source of protein. We’re finding ways to make it tastier and easier to eat.”

As food preferences change, Doug believes it’s important to listen to the consumer and provide them with they information they are seeking. 

“We have to do a better job of telling our story in the meat business,” Doug says. “We want to use video and social media to show people how our products are made — the importance of food safety, innovation, technology. You often hear about the bad — we want to show the good.”

With more and more consumers removed from agriculture, Doug is focused on finding innovative ways to help people understand that families work hard to create the healthy pork chop on their dinner table.

“As producers, processors and marketers, we need to share the message of the people behind the pork — grain farmers who produce feed, farmers who care for the pigs, truck drivers who haul the pigs, veterinarians who treat the pigs and more,” he says. “It takes a lot of real people doing real work to make the products on their table.”

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