Mitchell couple leads the way in Omega 3 pork production
By Keith Roulston
When you’re as far on the leading edge as Paul and Rose Hill, you’ve got to figure the issues out for yourself, from production to marketing.
It took a year of working out the kinks, before the Hills became Ontario’s first producers of DHA Omega-3 pork on their 500-sow, farrow-to-finish operation north of Mitchell. (Other certified producers of Omega-3 pork are using plant-sourced ALA Omega-3.) They’ve staked a big part of their future on one of the hottest trends in food.
Healthy food has consumers turning to foods that will provide the health-producing Omega-3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 eggs now make up 12 per cent of the North American egg market.
Speaking in 2008 at Grey-Bruce Farmers Week, Dr. Bruce Holub, who was one of the creators of Omega-3 eggs through his research at the University of Guelph, said there is a need for Canadians to get more Omega-3 yet in their diets. The best source of the fatty acid is fish, but while the Japanese eat fish twice a day, the average Canadian eats fish once every 12 days. That makes it important to put Omega-3 into the fats we do like, Dr. Holub said.
While there are many products on the market claiming to have Omega-3, many use plant-based linoleic acid which isn’t as effective for the human body as Omega-3 DHA, Holub said.
Despite the fact the North American diet has considerable amounts of the plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acid from foods such as flax, canola oil, and walnuts, our bodies’ ability to convert ALA to DHA/EPA is limited. We need the DHA-Omega 3 to get the full benefit of this essential fat.
That’s what the Hills have started out to do. While there are people who are feeding flax to pigs to provide what they call Omega-3 pork, the Hills have developed a diet that includes human-grade fish oil. They employed a nutritionist from Grand Valley Fortifiers to help develop the diet, and to help them find a source of the oil from fish from the wild. They regularly take feed samples for analysis and periodically meat from pigs is tested to see that it maintains the level of Omega-3.
The Hill’s family history plays a part in their taking a leadership role in the production of this value-added pork. Paul brings a lifetime involvement in the pork industry, starting when his parents bought 18 sows back in 1971. Later, after his father died at an early age, Paul led expansions of the farm in 1988 (to 80 sows), 1996 to 350 sows and 2000, (to 500 sows).
Rose, meanwhile, earned a diploma in food service management, giving them a window into the end-use of their product. “It’s a good fit,” she says of their matching skill-sets. She could take Paul out to the barn and demonstrate on a pig where the different cuts come from, she says.
Their interest in healthful products was accelerated by the tragic death in 2001 of their oldest child, Ryan from liver cancer at the age of just two.
The process of conversion really began with depopulation of the barn in 2006. They restocked with Topigs for the maternal line and Tempo, known for its sturdiness and high resistance to disease, for the paternal side. The combination creates well-marbled meat, countering the complaint that the stress on Ontario breeding programs has been so heavily on producing lean hogs, that taste and moisture have been sacrificed.
The additional fat is a great transmitter of the Omega-3 fat, says Rose.
“We’ve gone to a fatter animal that is also a healthier animal,” Paul says of the added bonus.
The change made for some humorous incidents in their early efforts to open markets for their unique products.
“We were trying to say there was more fat without saying fat,” laughs Paul. They’d use terms like more marbling in the meat and people wouldn’t get their meaning. Finally they had to come out and say “there’s more fat in the meat.”
To their surprise, that got buyers excited because that’s what they wanted.
“Marketing has been a challenge because we’re promoting a brand new food,” Paul says. “It’s extremely exciting to be first.”
He admits his own naivete about marketing in that he expected when they announced the new product everyone would be as excited as they were. They weren’t. Rose, with her professional food service background was able to keep him grounded.
Still, they’re sure the product will take off once the word gets out. They look at the huge growth in the bottled water industry as an example of how health conscious consumers have become. The explosive growth of the Omega-3 egg market also gives them confidence of success.
One of the obstacles they had to overcome was some people’s concern that the fish oil would taint the taste of the pork. On my arrival, Paul offered to cook up some bacon to prove there is no deterioration of flavour. (I declined, but samples of meat Rose sent home proved to have excellent flavour — you’d never guess the pigs had eaten fish oil.)
Sampling has been one of their marketing weapons. After they hired a Toronto marketing firm to help get the word out about their product, (“We’re probably one of the few farms to do that,” says Paul), one of the first things they did was bring a sampler box of various products to each of the people who would be working on their promotion. When they go into Toronto retailers and restaurants, they also take samples to give out.
“It’s easier to give a lot away to get people to try it,” says Paul. With each sample, they ask people to email them with their comments.
“Once they try it they say ‘it’s the best we’ve ever tasted’,” says Rose.
One of the big hits in the city, she says, has been cottage rolls. These cuts seem to be a southwestern Ontario delicacy, she says, because Toronto contacts didn’t know what they were, or what to do with them. Once they gave people lessons on how to cook them, they received rave reviews. After tasting a cottage roll, one person wondered why they’d ever buy ham again.
“We have emails and emails from people who have tried our product,” says Mark, pulling out his cellphone to show the text of one four-star review saying it’s the best pork they’ve ever eaten.
Their goal is to find a distributor with connections to the health-conscious consumer outlets.
They already have a fitness centre that’s recommending their pork to its clientele and a few stores in Toronto that are carrying their products but they’ve been having to make each approach themselves.
“It’s kind of a stretch for two people from the farm.” says Rose.
But it’s good for farmers to be more aware of the markets for their products, not just shipping their pigs off on a truck, says Paul.
“People we’ve talked to have been very receptive,” he adds. “They love the idea of a local, healthy product. It’s been pretty cool that way.”
One connection leads to another. One person who sampled their product told them it should be in a high-end Toronto food chain that they’ll approach.
One of the lessons along the way is that people in cities just haven’t any idea just how much meat comes in a 25-pound sampler box, Rosie says. They get a box that contains two packages of premium bacon, two mini-Black-Forest hams, a cottage roll, four pork chops with tenderloin, two schnitzel, one back rib and five packages of different flavoured sausages and they wonder if it’s all for them.
As well as trying to crack the retail market, the Hills have set up a website to market their product (www.willowgrovehill.com). It offers various convenient packages with such titles as Sunday Special, Sausage Supreme, The Aficionado, the Barbecuer’s Delight and the Rock ’n Roller. The sampler box mentioned previously, for instance, is available for $165.50, a price that astounds urban consumers when they see how much they get, Rose says.
Some people have been hesitant to order from the website. “Trust me,” Paul assures them. “I’ll get the product to you.”
They’ve also set aside a front room in their house as a retail outlet, filled with freezers crammed with various products from bacon to pork chops to cottage rolls. This is where Rose vacuum-packs the various cuts after they get them from the processor (it took them a while to find a processor they were happy with, she says).
Though they haven’t had time to erect a sign yet, they hope this is a part of the business that will grow from people who like the idea of knowing where their food comes from and who grows it. Located on the busy Hwy. 23 road as they are, Paul has already picked out a spot for the retail store he dreams will someday be necessary.
“We have pig farmers buying our product from us,” he says proudly.
They haven’t talked much to other producers about their project to gauge the reaction from fellow producers. “We kept this secret for a long time,” says Paul.
As people who have invested a lot of money at a time when pork prices aren’t exactly high, they’re careful how many details of their production process they reveal.
“It’s taken a long time to get our rations to where they’re supposed to be,” Paul says.
The payoff for all their effort is that with the premium they are able to charge for a product that sells as a functional food, they hope to be able to have a decent life in the hog industry, says Paul. “We won’t have to depend on an external (export) market.”
With that in mind their approach has changed and they’re much more public about what they’re trying to do. “We’ve got to create our own markets. We’re trying to get as much media attention as possible.”
They’re only just starting down the road to meet their goals but they’re dedicated to keeping going.
“There have definitely been challenges but I’m passionate about our product and find ways to overcome,” says Paul.◊