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Small Pork Producers Take on Big Corporate Farms with Cooperative

Mountain View–The kill room at Ozark Mountain Pork is small: three hogs strung up by their feet, three men eviscerating them.

Amidst the blood and entrails, it is also intimate, as each man follows a pig through the dance of slaughter.

Russ Kremer, part-owner of the processing plant, points in at the hogs from the doorway and says, “Ten of them (today)’ll be mine. The good-looking ones.”

He is grinning, proud of his pigs, proud of the workers and proud of what 34 small Missouri pork farmers achieved when they banded together to form the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative in the fall of 2001.

“Basically, what we’ve done is gather together to make our own opportunities,” says Kremer, who is president of the cooperative.

Step one in creating those opportunities was raising $790,000 and buying the Mountain View processing plant in January 2002. The cooperative took step two last month as it officially launched its label, Heritage Acres, and started trucking Polish sausages, bacon and bratwurst off to independent southwest Missouri grocery stores.

The connection is clear.

“They’re just like us. They’re small independent people trying to hammer out a living and, like I said, the quality (of the pork) is outstanding,” said Chuck Murfin Sr., owner of Murfin’s Markets, which carries Heritage Acres products in its Ozark and Willard stores.

The pork cooperative is the first of its kind in the state and one of only a few in the nation Murfin called it a “rarity” but already it is sending ripples through the Missouri farming community and encouraging new partnerships throughout the state.

It inspired the Missouri Grocers Association to launch a new marketing stamp, a black-and-gold seal that reads “Missouri Pride,” which is being tested on the Heritage Acres products. The goal of the seal is both to connect small Missouri producers to the association’s network of independent grocery stores and to alert consumers to high-quality Missouri products.

“It’ll be kind of like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” said association president John Morrison. “It’s a notification of quality standards and that by buying that product, (the consumer is) helping their neighbor here in Missouri who made it.”

The pork cooperative has also helped spur the establishment of a beef cooperative, which, like Ozark Mountain Pork, is being organized under the umbrella of the Missouri Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group. That effort is on its way: 58 Missouri beef farmers have raised almost $1 million and bought a processing plant in Overland. The union is further working on an organic-vegetable cooperative in the Bootheel and a natural dairy cooperative in southwest Missouri.

Raising ‘Fewer hogs and more hell’

But first came Ozark Mountain Pork.

And before that came the winter of 1998, when live-hog prices crashed to 7 cents a pound, while farmers struggled with break-even prices of 35 cents a pound, Kremer says, shaking his head.

“That’s Depression-era prices,” he explains.

Hog farming is all the 45-year-old Kremer has wanted to do since he was 5 years old, but that winter he traded a 250-pound hog off his Osage County farm for a case of Miller Lite beer.

“That’s all that hog was worth. It was a slap in the face,” he says. “…That’s when I decided to raise fewer hogs and more hell.”

That was the winter Kremer and other family farmers started organizing the Missouri Farmers Union with the express purpose of fighting a consolidated commodity market that made all small farmers price-takers, rather than price-makers.

Family farms across the state were suffering that winter beef and soybean prices were also down and the MFU grew exponentially. By the end of March 1999, a rally on the Capitol steps in Jefferson City gathered more than 1,000 farmers. The MFU now has almost 2,400 members.

Kremer was elected the union’s first president, a title he still holds.

Almost immediately, the MFU began organizing the pork cooperative, and in the fall of 2001, a group of 34 pork farmers agreed on a business plan that would differentiate their meat from the rest.

They were all small operators, running between 400 and 1,500 head of hogs. Nationwide, nearly 80 percent of hogs are raised on farms producing 5,000 or more hogs per year, the National Pork Producers Council reports.

To compete on that market, the 34 Missouri farmers decided to raise hogs without added hormones or antibiotics and raise them in more humane conditions, steps that would make their meat more valuable.

And then they plunked down the money to make it happen. In the two months between November 2001 and January 2002, they contributed almost $800,000 to an equity drive that resulted in the purchase of the Mountain View processing plant. The cooperative also received a $133,000 federal grant and a $50,000 state grant.

A year later, the plant is bustling with 30 employees who process about 20,000 pounds of meat each week, a third of the plant’s capacity. And Heritage Acres continues to expand its product line: In a cooling room, 20-pound smoked hams hang on a rack like oversize Christmas ornaments, next to a bin of vacuum-packed bacon heels, the oddly shaped ends of pork bellies.

The cooperative’s principles are intact: The plant and the 34 farms are certified under the American Humane Association’s Free Farmed program, which sets guidelines for humane treatment of farm animals. The plant is unionized under the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2 out of Kansas City. And the hog farmers earn a premium of 5 cents per pound, or about $12.50 per 250-pound animal, over regular hog prices, a premium Kremer expects will increase.

“This is a true community initiative,” he says. “Good for workers, good for farmers, good for community.”

“This is one of those times when all the money stays right here in Missouri,” said Tim King, director of meat operations for Ramey/Price Cutter, a regional chain of grocery stores.

And most important to Freeburg pork farmer and cooperative member Lori Buscher, she suddenly has a voice again.

“Before, you took (the hogs) to market and the packer told you how much you’d get. You didn’t have a say-so. You were just a small farmer. They didn’t care,” she said. “… We’re back to having the power.”

Small guys sticking together

But that power is in its infancy and still unsteady.

“We’re rookies and, admittedly, we’ve had our potholes in the road and our bumps,” Kremer said. “This is a pretty ruthless business. … People say, when you’re small, you’re off the radar. Naw. With every piece we sell, we knock someone else off the shelf.”

And that essentially pits the cooperative against the Goliath of corporate pork, before a nationwide audience of small farmers looking for a model to emulate.

“We’re shifting the paradigm here,” Kremer says. “We’re at least attempting to shift the paradigm … and we’re making a lot of the big guys nervous.”

But Ozark Mountain Pork has its supporters.

Murfin of Murfin’s Markets, for example. “If (we small guys) don’t all stick together, we’re gonna be one corporate giant, … so, if I can sell stuff in my store that will help some small farmer, I’m happy to do it,” he said.

The cooperative also has a lot of expectations riding on it. It is the testing ground for the Missouri Grocers Association’s Missouri Pride seal, for example, a seal the association hopes will one day help promote many Missouri products.

Kremer is confident. The cooperative is holding a second equity drive, hoping to raise $300,000 for plant expansion and improvement and to attract up to 15 new farmers. Within three months, he expects Ozark Mountain Pork to jump a vital hurdle and start turning a profit. Already the plant can’t keep up with demand, he said.

But sitting in a small, cold office at the plant, surrounded by the smell of pig, a note of uncertainty creeps in.

“It’s working. It’s gonna work,” Kremer says, throwing up his hands.

Dropping them again, he continues, “Honestly, it’s (the small farmer’s) only hope.”

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