MELROSE -- Jim and Helen Poepping have been raising hogs and selling pork products for more than 20 years, relying on heavy word-of-mouth to lure customers down the long gravel road that leads to their farm.
But their good reputation and the quality of their sausages, spare ribs and bacon wasn't always enough for people to forego the convenience of their local grocer and drive 30 or 40 miles to the Poepping farm.
"The gravel road was a drawback for some people," Jim Poepping joked. "If you don't get repeat customers, you don't have a business."
The Poeppings solved their location problem three years ago by joining a startup state meat inspection program. The program lets small and medium-sized farmers get their meat approved and onto the shelves of grocery stores -- an opportunity previously only available to larger, USDA-inspected plants.
Now products from the family's label, Pep's Porks, can be found in about a dozen stores throughout Stearns County. Jim Poepping says his hog farm is processing twice as much meat as before -- 1,200 hogs a year -- and profit has grown by nearly 30 percent.
"It's expanded our business, but it's also made it a little more convenient for our customers to get ahold of our product," Poepping said. "The time was just right to do it."
When the state program kicked off in January 1999, only one meat processor signed up, putting out about 100 pounds of meat a month. Today, there are 67 processors statewide, churning out nearly 9 million pounds, or $40 million in product, a year.
That's less than 5 percent of all the meat processed in Minnesota each year. But, for farmers like the Poeppings, a little is a lot.
"They chew off as big a bite as they can handle," said Willis Wesley, a state supervisory inspector, as he inspected a slaughtered hog recently at the Poepping farm.
Wesley, who worked for the USDA for 30 years, says the program is good for smaller operations because of flexible scheduling of slaughter days and more daily interaction.
Prior to state inspections, small farms would be inspected by the USDA about four times a year. Because smaller operations couldn't sell product in stores -- federal regulations stipulated that only meat processed at USDA-inspected facilities could be sold in stores -- there wasn't a need for intense inspections. Smaller plants could only sell directly from their facilities or process meat for other farmers.
The inspection program came from a desire to improve food safety and help family farmers compete, said Kevin Elfering, the program's director. USDA funds 50 percent of the program, while nominal license fees and state funding pays for the rest.
"From a standpoint of keeping a small-town business viable, that's what's been really helpful," Elfering said. "Some of these companies needed something to keep them as an active business."
That's because many plants depended on processing animals for other farmers, but the number of livestock farmers in the state has steadily declined in the past decade, Elfering said.
Despite the program's apparent success -- a recent study showed 450 jobs and $100 million in economic activity for the state -- a looming state budget deficit could stifle its growth.
"We would like to have the opportunity to expand and I fear that we're not going to have that," said Elfering. "We're all of a sudden going to have to tell plants we can't put you under inspection because we don't have the inspector to supply."
Currently, the program has 15 employees, including 12 inspectors, many of them criss-crossing the state to inspect multiple plants each day.
For those already in the program, it's the busy time of year.
"Christmas is always big," Jim Poepping said. "There's a lot of German heritage around here and they like their sausages during the holidays."
The program has allowed the Poeppings to keep their business a family affair. Poepping's daughter, Amy, and son, Scott, and Scott's wife, Cheri, all work at the plant. Scott raises hogs and slaughters them while the rest of the family processes the meat.
Scott Poepping says he's grateful he's been able to raise his family outside the hustle-and-bustle of the Twin Cities and stay near his parents. "It's nice to work together and keep them close by."
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