EDEN PRAIRIE -- Jodi Yotter parks the ''Porkmobile'' and waits. Customers will come, attracted to the notion of buying farm-fresh meat from a local producer.
Yotter and husband Tom raise hogs near Cambridge. Two years ago, plummeting prices all but ruined their family farm's future. They collected $17,818 for 180 hogs at market in April 1998; eight months later, when the same number of hogs fetched less than one-fourth the price, it was time to rethink the family business.
Today, the Yotters' direct marketing business is possible because a year-old state meat inspection program is cutting out the middleman.
''I think we're an example of a dream come true,'' Yotter said. ''We've had to do something innovative to keep ourselves going. Without the state, that wouldn't have happened.''
In the past, the Yotters drove their hogs several miles to a federally inspected packer, where they were paid whatever the plant would offer. Their meat would change hands at least four times -- sometimes over a period of several days or weeks -- before landing anonymously in grocery stores and restaurants.
Now, the Yotters take their hogs to Lorentz Meats and Deli, a small, state-inspected operation in Cannon Falls. A few days later, the Yotters load packaged pork, bearing their own Circle Family Farms brand name, into two freezer-trailers -- dubbed ''Porkmobiles'' I and II -- to sell directly to consumers.
Lorentz Meats expanded its business from cutting meat for farmers to producing, packaging and labeling finished products after the state started inspecting plants at the beginning of last year.
Co-owner Mike Lorentz said his business would have never taken the leap under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the state must follow the same guidelines as the USDA, Lorentz said state inspectors are accustomed to dealing with smaller operations, and can offer more help and suggestions for achieving compliance.
The Yotters saw their opportunity when Lorentz Meats began producing brand names for smaller producers, and took advantage of the emerging niche. Now they travel the state selling breakfast sausages, bratwurst and large, quarter-hog variety packages in parking lots and farmers' markets.
Last year, the Yotters did nearly $190,000 in sales, and have joined the ranks of e-merchants with their Web site, http://www.porkforsale.com.
Before the program began, about 100 large packing facilities in Minnesota were the only in-state option for livestock farmers. Most facilities are run by large, national food processors making their own brands, like Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp.
Smaller processing plants, afraid to deal with federal regulators in Washington, shied away from expanding their businesses beyond cutting custom meat for farmers and a handful of consumers.
Now, state inspectors are allowing the 15 plants under state inspection to bring old-time sausage recipes and farm-fresh meat to grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants across Minnesota.
''It's like untying our hands,'' said Lorentz. ''We can actually sell stuff.''
While the USDA is required to inspect any operation that requests it, Lorentz said the agency ''isn't very excited about taking on small plants. It's not that they're wrong, and it's not that they're evil, they're just not good at dealing with guys like us.''
Kevin Elfering is the meat inspection supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He said the USDA is geared toward regulating large, assembly line-type operations.
''A lot of these small plants really fear the USDA,'' Elfering said. ''There are plenty of horror stories of how they close plants down. But they know me. They know my telephone number. They don't know who to call in (Washington) D.C.''
Nathaniel Clark, manager of the USDA food safety inspection district including Minnesota, said the USDA welcomes the growing popularity of state meat inspection.
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