For Nate and LouAnn Robinson, raising animals isn't just a job.
“I love pigs, so you have to have passion wherever you farm,” says Nate Robinson, a farmer in Cass County, Mich., selling pasture-raised pork through their business, Jake’s Country Meats. He and his wife LouAnn have seen lots of changes since they started farming in the 1970s.
“Over time, things got bigger, and we didn't,” says LouAnn. “We had a hard time competing outside with the direction that hog farming was taking at that time.”
She says they didn't want to give up pasture-raised pork. That's when they were approached about transitioning to antibiotic-free and decided to do it.
“It seems our herd health now is the best it’s ever been, and we administer no antibiotics for the last, I want to say, 10 years," she says.
The move to antibiotic-free also forced the family to downsize their operation. “Your management is key if you're antibiotic-free,” LouAnn says.
She says they found their size, but then the Robinsons also needed to find their customers. “We didn't even know we had anything unique out here,” Nate says. "Finally someone said, ‘You know, we really like the taste of your pork, and we like how you're doing things.'”
So, the family tried their hand at local farmers' markets and found success. “We went from selling part of our herd to selling 100% of our herd through our customer base, without having to go out on the open market with any of our animals,” says LouAnn.
Big City Success for Backyard Business
In the last five years, demand for their product has skyrocketed and their backyard business now sends pork to customers in Chicago and Detroit. “I didn't think it would grow this quickly,” admits Nate.
He and LouAnn say the thing that keeps customers coming back is the taste of their pork.
“It was good-tasting. It was fattier, but it had a lot of flavor, and people could identify with that,” says LouAnn. “A lot of people say, ‘This is the way pork used to taste.'"
The farm even tailors its products to Chicago flavors. “These are small ones,” explains LouAnn, while showing off a ham. “These go really well in Chicago. Smaller is better."
Such success has brought challenges as well.
“We just don't have enough bacon,” explains Nate. “We have another farmer in Missouri that designs our boars to give us a little bit more bacon on that belly.”
Easter Demand, Grilling Season
Bacon is a mainstay year-round, but during holidays, like Easter, it's hams that fly off their truck. The National Pork Board says Easter ranks as the second biggest day for ham consumption, trailing Christmas. Since some cultures don't want traditional hams, the Robinsons are venturing out to meet those food preferences, as well.
“What they said to us was ‘We want a unique ham,’ says Nate. “So, we had to go to a no-nitrate added ham, because they didn't want that sodium nitrate. So, through trial and error, we've hit a home run with it."
Hams are in high demand now, but in a month, it will switch to the items people can put on the grill. While the Robinsons can't always keep up with the surge in demand, conventional pork producers are facing near-record pork supplies in cold storage.
“It’s a wet blanket,” says Pro Farmer Editor Brian Grete. “A lot of poultry, a lot of pork, a lot of beef, but what we’ve seen is pork has fared the best of those three and is kind of winning at the meat case, at this point. We'll see how that transitions as we move into grilling season here."
Grete says the good news is China could start buying more U.S. pork to help chew through some of that hefty supply, and that boost in demand could help pork prices in the coming months.
“I think we've seen the bulk of the run-up here in these spring and summer month contracts,” explains Grete. “I do think that maybe we have a little bit more, but you have to hedge when you have an opportunity to lock in profits, and for almost every single hog producer out there right now, prices are at a profitable level."
Hog prices rose to a 9-month high and pork bellies are seeing double-digit gains in a matter of months.
For the Robinsons, the supply and demand situation doesn't matter: Their prices for their pasture-raised pork stay the same. “We do not go by the open market price at all,” says LouAnn. “We know what our costs are, we set our price, and therefore, our customer isn't always on this roller coaster with pricing."
She says they call it their sustainability factor; pork is priced based on what it takes to keep this family farm profitable. But what keeps this family going?
“It's the desire for the next generation to continue on,” says Nate.
And with the seventh generation already on the farm, and the eighth by their dad's side, the Robinsons want to fuel a passion that lasts for eight more generations to come.