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Niche Markets Offer New Opportunities for Producers

by 5m Editor
29 October 2008, at 10:09am

NEBRASKA - More and more consumers, no longer content to eat conventional pork, are looking to purchase meat developed through more selective niche markets.

In response, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension is helping pork producers learn more about niche markets, said Richard Ness, extension educator focusing on niche pork. In general, niche pork markets require a fatter pig than is grown in conventional systems, giving it a different eating quality, he said.

"The growth in the alternative swine production systems comes from consumer demand for alternatives to commodity pork products," Ness said. "These are consumers who have different values that they want met by the pork products they buy."

The niche or designer pork industry is based on creating a different product before the animal reaches the processing plant, Ness said. These differences include giving the animal no antibiotics, hormones or animal byproducts, not confining it in gestation or farrowing crates, and following animal welfare recommendations.

Other niche markets relate not to the way the animals are treated but rather revolve around breed, such as Berkshire, Heirloom and Heritage.

For many people, pork developed through niche markets represents quality, Ness said.

Niche pork "is not going to take over the pork industry," Ness said. "But there are a lot of people who read 'bon appetit' magazine and shop at Whole Foods Market. It's a certain segment of the population but they're serious about where their food comes from."

Extension has scheduled meetings Dec. 10 in Norfolk and Dec. 11 in Auburn for existing niche pork farmers and those interested. The meetings are designed to educate people about niche pork production and let them know of the growing demand, Ness said. A niche pork expert from England will speak.

Ness also has formed a learning group of niche pork producers. The group held two meetings earlier this year and plans to meet again in November and December to swap ideas.

Extension is co-sponsoring a series of digital farm tours with Iowa State University that will cover niche pork, is developing educational materials to be available through the Internet, and plans to develop educational curriculum for agricultural students at UNL and community colleges.

Most of Nebraska's niche pork farmers sell their animals to Niman Ranch, a niche food business that has a pork processing plant in western Iowa. Klint Stewart, Nebraska's field agent for Niman, estimated there are about 40 active niche pork farmers in the state who sell their pork to Niman.

Dean Janousek of Clarkson, who has been raising hogs for about 30 years, is one of them. Janousek said he wouldn't be in the business if it wasn't for the niche pork market because it is the most profitable for a small 25-sow operation such as his.

"If we didn't have this specific market I would not be raising hogs," he said, explaining that he gets about 62 cents a pound for live hogs in niche production as opposed to about 50 cents in the conventional market.

Janousek refuses to use farrowing crates for his 25 sows, believing that his animals need room to stand up and lay down. He does not use antibiotics and also raises the popular Berkshire breed, which he said has a better flavor.

"I get the satisfaction of raising some of the best pork in the country," he said.

The pork sold by Niman Ranch can be purchased at some restaurants and specialty grocery stores, including Chipotle Mexican Grill and some Whole Foods Markets, Stewart said. The company also is selling bacon and sausage at Super Target stores nationwide, he said. The pork is more expensive – sometimes double the price of pork sold in traditional grocery stores.

Hog farmers get involved in the niche pork industry for several reasons, Ness said. It is often a value issue – they believe this is the proper way to raise pigs. Some have raised their pigs this way for years and now they have a market for it.

For others, niche markets usually provide a floor price for the hogs which reduces the financial risk in a falling market, he said. Plus, the cost of getting started raising pigs for niche markets is considerably less than starting a conventional system because gestation crates and other equipment are not needed.

"This makes niche pork attractive to younger, beginning farmers," Ness said.

5m Editor