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.”
Today Eden Farms is the largest producer-owned certified Berkshire pork operation in the nation. Its owners are 28 family farmers. Herd size averages 50 to 75 sows per member. In February, Eden's Berkshire hogs were selling for 62¢ per pound on a liveweight basis.
"If we hadn't been in a niche market the past two years, we'd all be broke,” adds Hilleman, who is an Eden Farms board member.
Sustainable Production. Part of Biensen's marketing spiel with prospective customers includes acknowledging the preventive use of penicillin.
Eden Farms has two Food Safety and Inspection Service labels for marketing. One is for pigs that have had no antibiotics for 100 days prior to harvest. The other label is for pigs that have never received antibiotics. While the majority of the Berkshire pigs are marketed under the 100-day label, most of those pigs receive only 1 cc of penicillin at birth to ward off strep, to which Berkshire pigs are susceptible.
"When I explain why we do it, people understand,” Biensen says. Additionally, none of the Eden Farms pigs receive hormones or hormone-like drugs that act like repartitioning agents.
The genetic base of Eden Farms' Berkshire hogs is strictly controlled for the sake of product consistency. Hogs are raised in an environment fit for their high-end value, bedded down with cornstalks or straw in Animal Welfare Approved hoop barns. Gestation crates are prohibited, as well.
"If pigs are stressed, it shows in the meat,” says Eden Farms' operations manager, Nick Jones.
|> The Eden Farms Better Pork crew shows off their signature bacon at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. From left: Nick Jones, operations manager; Jim Thompson, producer relations; and Randy Hilleman, pork producer and Eden Farms board member.
Supply Management. The job of balancing demand for a specialty product with hog production requires a certain kind of calculus carried out by Jones. He lets members know how many pigs to deliver each week based on distributor requests. He makes sure orders are filled and arranges transportation of the product.
"We try to keep the price producers receive as high as possible so they are profitable,” Hilleman says. "If we grow too large, we are no longer a niche.”
Eden producers deliver about 225 pigs per week to Pine Ridge Farms in Des Moines. Jones says the packing plant cuts and packs according to customer specifications, which largely call for primal cuts.
"We sell to distributors who service restaurants, such as Trostel's Greenbriar in Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines, and V. Mertz in Omaha,” Jones says.
Eden's Berkshire market hogs average a liveweight of 300 lb., achieved at seven to eight months old. The extra weight increases the loin eye size and marbling.
"Berkshires are not the most efficient breed. They need 4 lb. of feed for 1 lb. of gain. Litter size is seven to nine pigs,” Biensen says. "But our product tastes so much better on a consistent basis that people will pay a premium. Our inefficiencies are paid for by the customer.”
Indeed, each sale includes a letter of authenticity. "We are completely transparent. We tell everybody what we do and how we do it.”
Top Producer, Spring 2010