Kelly Biensen can't afford to eat in the restaurants where his signature pork product is served, but he's thrilled others are willing to pay an average $36 a plate for his Eden Farms Berkshire Pork.
After all, it wasn't that long ago the Iowa producer was just trying to survive in the pork business. Biensen well remembers the 1998 hog price fiasco, when prices dipped as low as $8 per cwt. due to massive industry supplies and declining export markets.
The crisis forced Biensen to create a new pork business model that revolves around family farmers providing organically grown pork to high-end restaurants and other retail customers. He developed Eden Farms, a coalition of independent family farmers that is the largest American supplier of 100% pure heirloom Berkshire pork and the only farmer-owned company with national distribution (www.betterpork.com).
Today, Biensen's niche Berkshire hog business earns approximately 20¢ more per pound than the national average price and helps support 28 other farmers while making customers at high-end restaurants happy as clams.
"This business was born from catastrophe,” says Biensen, who farms near State Center, Iowa. "After living through decimating hog prices, I decided to figure out how to protect my business.”
A New Model. Biensen began his pursuit for a new business model simply by knocking on restaurant doors in Des Moines. He talked to chefs about price point and portion control. He learned of growing customer interest in how animals are raised from housing to feed.
Based on the chefs' feedback, he became convinced there was a market for a "signature” pork item. Biensen figured the best way to ensure product uniformity was to confine production to one breed.
Enter the Berkshire hog, an animal that produces a pork chop about as far from white meat as pig can get. Biensen credits the "Pork—The Other White Meat” campaign for increasing demand for pork. But the emphasis on lean pork, which is pale-colored meat, led to a less palatable product, he says. Chefs and customers now want a product that is extremely dark with hard, white fat trim. Berkshire meat fibers are small, which makes the pork more tender and juicy, he says.
"A lot of highfalutin chefs know Kelly by his first name,” says Randy Hilleman, who along with his brothers supplies Berkshire market hogs to Biensen.
In 2005, Biensen and his wife, Nina, had created enough of a following that they formed a farmer-owned pork business called Eden Natural LLC. "It works like a cooperative but is an LLC,” Biensen says. Eden Natural is currently doing business as Eden Farms.
Member producers pay a one-time fee per sow unit to join Eden Farms. They agree to raise pigs in a sustainable environment; deliver hogs to the packing plant every Tuesday night; attend the annual producer meeting; and be "loyal to each other and the company as a whole.”
- SPRING 2010