One of the best things about working at the Willy Street Co-op is being able to educate ourselves and our Owners about the great local producers and farmers whose goods we carry. Several years ago the Reader featured an article about Sue and Tony Renger of Willow Creek Farm and Charcuterie. Since that article, there have been some pretty big changes made by the Rengers. I recently had the opportunity to meet with them and tour their new facility in Prairie Du Sac.
Given the steady increase in demand for their high-quality products, the Rengers decided it was time to move from their 2000 sq. ft. facility to a still modest, but much more accommodating, 4200 sq. ft space. In October of 2012 they began the transition to the new place, first moving the office, and then the remaining processing facility in January, once the proper USDA improvements were made. The new place is just up the road from the older one. It was a pretty easy transition and has allowed for much needed space.
After moving their processing facility, they upgraded their slicer and stuffer and added a new vac-pak machine. They also added new smokers, smoker racks and various other stainless steel tables and storage racks which, interestingly, they built themselves. The Rengers built their own storage racks in part because they also own a manufacturing company, Simply Manufacturing. The core focus of their manufacturing company is on meat processing accessories, screens, trees, trucks, cages, meat sticks, vats and custom fabrication to the food processing industry.
Willow Creek Farm started on just 10 acres in 1993 with the belief that farmers who raise animals have an obligation to make sure they provide the animals with a comfortable, happy and natural life as one of the formative principles in their business practice. You can be assured that all Willow Creek hogs are allowed to roam freely or visit the comforts of their straw-lined shelters at their leisure. They are raised in a non-C.A.F.O. Environment. (C.A.F.O = confined animal feeding operation). The hogs are healthy, happy and stress-free with lots of room to move about. These animals aren’t just a business to Tony and Sue, they are creatures to be treated with dignity and respect and the Rengers’ commitment to ethically raising animals and producing high-quality meats goes back generations for both Tony and Sue.
Tony grew up on a farm in Iowa and is a fourth generation hog farmer. He raises his hogs with the same set of values his family had practiced for generations before. Sue also has a history in pork production. When Sue’s grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1915, he brought an old family recipe for kielbasa with him. Using this recipe he made kielbasa every Friday night to sell in his grocery store. After his passing in 1940, the public could no longer get this delicious sausage, until today! Sue uses her grandfather’s recipe to make Willow Creek Farm’s kielbasa, using purebred Berkshire pork and only the highest quality spices. Tony and Sue now manage two farms of their own and employ seven other Amish farmers. The Rengers provide all of the breeding stock/genetics to keep the consistency the same. Everyone uses the same production protocol (no antibiotics, non-CAFO, access to pastures). They provide the feed to the farmers that finish them out. They provide trucking. The farmers provide the bedding and labor. Normally the number of hogs on any one farm doesn’t exceed 80, which allows space for the hogs to roam. Tony and Sue share in the production, care of animals, marketing and distribution of their pork. They manage this with just three additional staff members.
Willow Creek raises only purebred Berkshire hogs which are prized for their juiciness, flavor and tenderness. The pork has a high-fat content which makes it suitable for slow cooking and high-temperature cooking. The Renger’s Berkshires are brought to market at seven months; the norm for commercially raised hogs is four-and-a-half months. Tony and Sue have gained a reputation for producing top-quality meat that has been raised in a humane and sustainable way. This combination of quality and ethics has made Willow Creek products a favorite among chefs like Tori Miller of Graze and l’Etoile and Stefano Viglietti of Trattoria Stefano, II Ritrovo, Field to Fork and Duke of Devon. You can also find dishes made from Willow Creek at the Roxbury tavern in Roxbury, WI and, of course, in our very own Willy Street Co-op Delis! The best part of this is, because we carry a wide variety of Willow Creek products you can always make your own top notch meals with our full selection of shoulder roast, tenderloin, a variety of chops, ribs, hocks, sausage, brats and we’d be remiss to forget to mention the fabulous bacon selection!
The big picture
The most important point I hope you take away from this article is Tony and Sue’s philosophy of looking at the full picture when deciding what we consume. Willow Creek Farm prides themselves on raising humanely produced food on a sustainable farm that not only provides a high quality of life for their animals but for their employees as well. They provide health care, free dental and short and long term disability, life insurance and a good salary. Tony and Sue are not getting rich off their endeavors but have a nice, comfortable life doing what they love while putting their children through college. So when you ask yourself, “Is this pork worth the price?” take into consideration the full picture. Oh, and on the off chance you haven’t tried their bacon yet—you should certainly make time to do so. It is so very worth it.