Lemons to “Bacon” and Travelling Pigs

By Donna Hover

At the beginning of 2020 most people started the year with a New Year’s resolution -- usually based on hopes of working towards improving their health, business, friendships, or a personal goal. Then COVID-19 hit, resolutions were replaced with other concerns such as business closures, many changes, and uncertainties. How long will this last? What will be the short and long-term impact? Will this affect my family and business? How will we survive?

Throughout the last year we were inundated with news of hardships, business shutdowns, and lost loved ones. But 2020 also provided some positive avenues. We heard stories of parents, because they were working from home, were able to engage in more quality family time by reading stories, playing games, trying new recipes thus creating closer family bonds.

New and improved technologies were developed to enhance continued communication with family, friends, and fellow employees. This technology enabled many businesses to allow employees to work from home with the goal to slow-down the spread and risk of COVID-19. New ideas and processes were implemented as people and businesses thought outside the “box” to find a solution that would work for them.

The agriculture community also had many examples of innovative thinking during that time to help them overcome the challenges they were facing. Pork producers worked through new processes to keep staff safe and healthy, as well as where to market their pigs during the time of decreased production and shutdown of packing plants. One pork producer family faced such a challenge and when they were dealt lemons, they made lemonade… maybe instead of lemonade, they made “Bacon”. This was the Ferlyn Hofer Family.

The Hofer Family members smiling at the camera
The Hofer Family

Ferlyn Hofer started his agricultural career in 1978 near Canistota, South Dakota when he purchased farm ground, now known as Fairview Farms. Fairview Farms consists of crop farming and hog production. Its swine operation consists of a farrow to finish farm where they grind their own corn to feed their livestock.

Ferlyn Hofer & Karen Hofer smiling at the camera
Ferlyn Hofer and wife Karen

Today, Ferlyn, along with his wife Karen, farm with their three sons, Nolan, Ryan, and Tyler. All their sons are involved in the business either full or part time, utilizing each son’s specific skills and talents as a vital part of what keeps their farm going. Daughter in-laws also play an important part of the business, stepping in to help when or where they are needed. Fairview Farms is truly a family farm where family ties continue to grow. Because of this family’s leadership and commitment to the pork industry, the Hofer family was named the “2020 Family of the Year” at the South Dakota Master Pork Producer Banquet.

Through the years Ferlyn has been able to expand his farm to meet the needs of his family. He has seen many good years, but there have also been hurdles along the way. In the 80s Ferlyn encountered 18% interest rates while expanding his hog operation. Then in the late 90s the hog market crashed where prices averaged below $15/cwt. During that time questions arose for Ferlyn on what direction his business should take.

“What do you do when things don’t go as normal”, says Ferlyn, “look for other avenues”. Ferlyn also remembers his dad’s advice, “To stay in the game you are either ALL IN or you are ALL OUT”. So Ferlyn said he would tighten his belt and learn to adapt. “You need to continue to find a better way of doing things in order to stay in the business” reflects Ferlyn.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Ferlyn faced the same challenges as other producers. Hogs scheduled for market started to be backed up due to lower processing plant production. On a Saturday, Ferlyn heard that the governor announced the closing of the Smithfield processing plant. The shutdown was to allow for disinfection and safety measures to be put in place to combat COVID-19. At this point, no one knew how long until the plant would reopen or how soon it would be back at full capacity. Ferlyn called the Hofer family together to discuss the plant shut down and options on how to best care for their pigs. Little did they know the door of opportunity would open for them.

On Tuesday, unknown to Ferlyn, Ryan created a website. Ryan’s goal was to connect Fairview Farms with consumers that would be interested in purchasing hogs for processing. It did not take long before Ferlyn’s cell phone began to ring. Someone left a message that they were interested in buying pigs. Ferlyn began to wonder what was going on and why were people calling him? When Ferlyn arrived home, he learned about Ryan’s website.

As the day progressed, Ferlyn continued to receive dozens of calls per hour. The rest of his day was spent answering and returning calls until 10:00 pm that evening. The website proved to be a huge success in creating pork marketing opportunities. Throughout the week interested parties continued to call for orders of hogs to a level that made Ferlyn aware that he needed help. Ferlyn asked a daughter in-law to help coordinate the scheduling and tracking of orders.

Many of these orders came from people who had never purchased hogs direct or through a locker. They were used to going to a grocery store to buy prepackaged or over the counter pork products. So Ferlyn and Karen stepped in to help answer many of their questions on cuts of pork and options for processing. Ferlyn also commends the lockers for being a BIG part of making this endeavor successful. Lockers and staff went out of their way by processing hogs on their days off and weekends. Over the next few weeks, all their market weight pigs were matched with consumers and future orders were being taken.

“When pigs fly”, well maybe Fairview Farms’ pigs did not fly, but they certainly traveled to unexpected places! Some of the pigs went to local communities surrounding them, but what surprised Ferlyn were the inquiries he received from people long distances away. With so many new visitors coming to the farm, time was spent making sure Fairview Farms biosecurity protocol was followed by screening all the modes of transportation.

Here’s a few locations Fairview Farms’ pigs traveled to:

  • Thirty pigs went to Glacier National Park, Montana.
  • Local communities purchased pigs for processing to give back to firefighters, responders, and local food banks.
  • A butchery in Wyoming came and picked up a load of 15 pigs. Their customers were so happy with the quality and flavor of the meat they came and purchased another 30 pigs. This has turned into an ongoing relationship with a handshake.
  • A group came from Arizona which is a 19-hour one-way trip. They picked up 30 pigs for their butcher shop. This load required health papers with information on the number of gilts, number of barrows, confirmation that pigs did not have pseudo rabies, and that no garbage had been fed to the pigs.
  • A Rapid City’s buffalo processing locker was closed due to decline of restaurants purchasing buffalo meat products. Ferlyn visited with the owner of the locker concerning pork processing at his location. The owner decided that he would move forward with processing pork. This enabled the Rapid City locker to reopen allowing employment again for his workers.
  • Ferlyn began referring calls for pork to other producers closer to their area.

Fairview Farms felt lucky that they did not have to destroy any of their pigs during the crisis and has pigs marketed for many months to come. As Ferlyn reflects on the past year about how they overcame this hurdle he said, “When life is easy, we sometimes take things for granted (example, marketing your hogs), then life throws us a curve ball and we must decide how to react.” Ferlyn believes he did not do anything different than other producers as they were only trying to make the best decisions for their family and animals. They all learned valuable lessons along the way and built lasting relationships. Then he emotionally commented, “I believe there was divine intervention”.

So, in the future will this way of marketing pigs continue for Fairview Farms and other pork producers? It is hard to say, but right now lockers are already fully booked for the next year. Ferlyn has also heard from many of his customers that they want to continue getting pork from him. Per Ferlyn, “It was a win-win situation. Consumers were provided a good source of pork and we were able to sell our pigs.” Based on consumer awareness to directly purchase pork from the farm may continue to open new doors of opportunity for pork producers.

Remember when dealt lemons, swine farmers make BACON!