Farm-to-fork movement presents new opportunities for farmers.
As the local food movement continues to grow, it’s giving new farmers the opportunity to do something unique. That’s the case for Travis Dunekacke who farms and operates TD Niche Pork in Elk Creek, Neb. He’s found his niche in raising the highest quality pork for local chefs.
"The local food is on their radar. It's been really good timing," Dunekacke says. "Starting this business in 2009, I sold the first restaurant pigs in March 2009, and it's grown ever since."
Growth that’s seen its fair share of challenges. Despite skyrocketing feed prices and the drought of 2012, Dunekacke has found a way to make it work.
"Eleven miles from the farm here is a USDA-inspected processor that has the capacity and willingness to work with a small direct-to-market operation like mine," he says.
This is truly a farm-to-fork business. From the farm, the hogs are taken to meat processors and then to chefs in cities like Omaha, Lincoln and Nebraska City. Dunekacke says chefs prefer breeds like the Berkshire because of the marbling of the meat and the yield.
"The chefs are really the deciding people," he says. "They're why we have the breeds we have here and the mix of them."
The quality of the final product begins before the pigs even reach his pins.
"Pork quality, first and foremost, starts with genetics," Dunekacke says. "These breeds here—the Berkshire, the Red Waddle, the Tamworth, we'll do some Herford in the future again—are just excellent meat quality breeds."
Preserving genetics and finding heirloom pork has been what’s kept chefs hungry for more of TD Niche Pork.
"That would be equivalent to someone who does Indy cars and tries to make them faster. They are already fast," he says. "Berkshires are already good, but when you talk about selecting genetics in that breed, you really distance yourself from the major breeds of swine."
Dunekacke has researched and explored different avenues to find the pork and meat quality that fits his taste buds. He gets a few from the Amish, but also discovered Cowsert Farms, who raise pure Berkshire hogs three hours south of his farm. Ryan and Glenda Cowsert run a family operation, who just like TD Niche Pork, doesn’t use any antibiotics and raises the animals on dirt. And it’s being picky in their selection process that allows them to deliver a product both Duneckacke and the customers enjoy.
"The last group of gilts we bought, we had five littermates that were out of the top intermuscular fat out of the United States," Ryan Cowsert explains.
Taking risks and going back to the basics is also where TD Niche Pork shines.
"I had the willingness to do a different kind of operation; the things other people won't do, which is primarily marketing and distribution," Dunekacke says.
And the growth in the business seems to just come naturally.
"The movement seems to multiply month after month, year after year," he says.
Dunekacke says the chefs are progressive and have the foresight to serve up the latest trends, before they’re even popular. That’s why he thinks the farm-to-fork set-up is here to stay.
"The bottom line is pork per capita consumption has been stagnant for 80 years," he says. "My belief is the only way we're going to change that is chasing the heels of beef."
Just as most cattle are finished out on dirt in Nebraska, he’s doing the same, just on a smaller scale. And that’s why he gets high marks in customer satisfaction.