Raising pork – or any other consumer-intended livestock – can become more profitable by creating a value-added product from it.
Laura Jensen, a self-described “pig nerd,” recently presented “Adding Value to Your Product Line” as a webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust. Jensen sells Meishan pork through her retail store, Jensen Reserve, in Loganville, GA, and is president of the American Meishan Breeders Association. The Pig Nerd is her consulting business.
Creating value-added products is “a huge thing that all farmers need to be aware of and how they can do that,” Jensen said.
She defined value-added as “a product whose value has been increased especially by special manufacturing, marketing or processing.” Jensen spent more than six years building her butcher shop’s business and that of her retail store, which helped her gain experience in navigating how to add value to her meat products. She holds several food licenses and is about to acquire her federal FSI license.
Jensen said her best value-added work is her cured cuts and charcuterie meats, which have a retail sales carcass value of $7,811 on a 285 lb. hanging weight hog for certified Meishan pork.
Although that’s an excellent profit margin, “charcuterie requires the most licensing, so it may not be the right fit for everyone,” Jensen said.
She said the three areas of value-added products include processing – what the processor does with the cut sheets to maximize results; manufacturing – additional products produced post-processing, like brats, sausages, lard, prosciutto, charcuterie and dog treats; and marketing.
“Sales rarely just happen,” Jensen said. “You need a marketing plan that adds to the value of your work and to build and grow your business. I preach and preach and preach about marketing. If you don’t have a plan to attract and retain customers, you’ll have a really hard go of it.”
Getting all of the animal back from the processor can help generate more profits. For hogs, Jensen said it’s important to get back organ meat, head products (jowls, tongue, cheeks, ears, snouts, skin and skulls), coppa roast carcass skin, feet and tails.
“I’ve always taken a ‘pennies make dollars’ approach,” she said. “It’s about ‘How do I get the biggest return on the investment?’”
She loathes throwing away anything she can make money on. For example, she is starting to work with artists who want animal skulls.
When farmers add value and it’s for human consumption, it’s likely they will need food licenses. Many of these requirements are at the state level, so producers should check with local laws.
Holding a federal license will allow Jensen to ship across state lines – a distinct advantage for her high-end products.
“Federal is also the most expensive level,” she cautioned. “If you’re working with only whole and half hogs, an exempt or state license may work.”
Any operation selling items to consume on-site will need to work with the local health department.
Jensen spent $50,000 to transform a barn apartment into a butcher shop and store. To upgrade for a federal license, she spent another $30,000. But for those who want to sell value-added without doing it themselves, it takes only finding a processor who produces what the farmers want.
Jensen suggested asking processors what to sell as value-added items. “We go in with preconceived ‘this is what I like’ attitude, but you need to ask the processor ‘What is your number one seller?’”
She believes that dog treats are largely overlooked as a revenue stream for farmers. “There’s a lot of money in it with very little licensing,” Jensen said. Organ meat could be sold at a retail store to people or for dog food or dehydrated for dog treats.
“Dog treats are huge,” she said. “We have a lot of customers buying our heart, liver and kidneys. It took time to cultivate, but now I have a waiting list. There’s also people who want to feed their dogs raw or things from the farm that’s clean as possible. Heart, liver and kidney can feed into that.” Tongues, ears, snout and skin all go to dog treats too.
To make her dog treats, she dehydrates the raw material for 24 hours at 160º and then heat treats in an oven to kill any bacteria missed.
“Don’t baste or add anything with dog treats,” she advised. “You’d have to have a license and nutrition label. It’s simple, easy and high margin for the single ingredient treat.”
Many people have discovered jowl bacon, which Jensen said offers a different flavor from standard bacon. “It has a different flavor in an amazing way,” she said.
She also figured out how to dehydrate skins to make her own pork rinds. “We dehydrate those as dog treats for $3 apiece retail and I can’t keep them in stock,” she added. “In my state, as long as I don’t introduce anything else into them, I don’t need a license.”
Her coppa roast is the top of a butt. It runs $25/lb. retail; cured into capicola, it sells it for more. “I put it into pepperoni or other trims,” Jensen said.
These are all examples of how she uses her products to tap into trends – such as lard maison. She renders it to sell in eight- to 32-ounce tubs. She’s also beginning a line of soap, which will include the back fat.
She makes good margins from items like breakfast links, brats, specialty burgers and charcuterie, many of which are made from items she did not think she could sell or that she considered waste.
“One of the greatest predictors of success is the ability to market your product,” Jensen said. “I wanted to be a farmer and that’s all I wanted to be. But when you open your doors and you don’t know if enough people will show up to pay the bills, that’s where marketing comes into play.”
She believes that marketing is a tool to speak with customers and that farmers should talk with their customers at least every other week through social media channels. Platforms like Reels and TikTok can also be monetized as another revenue stream.
“Building your own marketing program can make the difference in your ability to stay in business or not,” Jensen said.
Posts and videos can be about life as a farmer, why you do what you do, recipes related to the products, who you and your crew are, what’s available, how to buy products, “real farming” content with heartaches included and details about how you’ve furthered your education (such as a seminar you attended).
“A lot of times I sit there thinking ‘Really? People want to see what I do?’ And they do,” Jensen said.
Many consumers – especially those buying local goods – want to see how their goods are made and their source.