A gesture to help a hog farmer friend has ended up in a whole new business for a Waconia couple.
Operation Bacon Pork Products was launched this spring by Brett and Katie Van Vooren at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, many pork processing operations were infected with the virus and many farmers were left wondering what do with their hogs.
Long-time friends Steve and Jen VanKeulen, hog farmers near Ghent, Minn., were among them. Theirs is one of 3,000 hog farms in Minnesota. Like many others, they were faced with difficult choices and challenges when a nearby international-based processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. closed due to a coronavirus outbreak.
The shuttering of processing facilities created a desperate situation for hog farmers, the welfare of their animals, the pork production system, as well as effects for consumers. It posed a financial crisis for farmers because there were too many hogs with nowhere to go and their values dropped. It also caused an overcrowding challenge on farms and concerns about animals not having access to enough water and feed.
It reached a point where farmers were forced into a tragic decision to euthanize the animals or let them starve, an outcome that would also lead to tremendous food waste and a potential shortage of meat products across the country.
The future was uncertain and the Van Voorens knew they had to try to find a way to help their friends the VanKeulens.
While most small, local butcher shops and meat processors were full for months, the Van Voorens were able to find a local processing partner and set up shop as Operation Bacon.
“I went from stay at home mom to pig broker,” laughs Katie Van Vooren.
Meanwhile, her husband Brett found another way to parlay his background in equipment finance with U.S. Bank into the new business.
They established a partnership with Benny’s Meat Market, owned by Ben and Derek Schwarzrock based in Hutchinson, Minn., and procured a freezer truck to assist with deliveries. They also set up a way to take and handle orders, including the website www.operationbacon.us.
Customers could and still can order whole or half-hog packages which come from the VanKeulens and other Minnesota hog farmers.
Initial success enabled Derek Schwarzrock to officially join the family meat business and acquire an additional facility in Hector, Minn., which provides eight times the freezer space as before. It also enables the partnership to increase pork output and fulfillment times, accommodating the VanKeulens’ hogs and other local hog farmers in need.
“Katie and I feel like we have an obligation to do all we can to try to keep them busy,” VanVoroen said. “We will continue our efforts in promoting consumer choice and giving local hog farmers a different avenue to source their product while keeping revenues in the state.”
Operation Bacon processed more than 350 orders during the peak of the coronavirus hog crisis and now is poised to fill a niche in the local farm to table market.
VanVooren admits he didn’t know much about hogs when he entered the side business. He does now.
He knows that many pork processing facilities are owned by large entities in foreign countries – China and Brazil, for example. He also knows that Minnesota hog farmers get a better price for their hogs through Operation Bacon and that customers get a fresher product by cutting out the middleman in their pork cuts.
“We have heard some great things about our product,” VanVooren said.
The VanVoorens expect the pandemic could affect the large-scale supply chain for months and they anticipate the farm-to-table approach will resonate with consumers, although they note it will require a change in buying behavior. Rather than buying a pound of bacon or a package or pork chops, customers will get roughly 165 pounds of processed pork per whole hog order. So, it might make sense for them to consider some kind of community buying position with 2-3 other families, VanVooren advises.
The meat is fresh, local, all-natural, chemical- and antibiotic-free, he notes. What’s more, it comes at an affordable price per pound you can squeal about.