Since last featuring their farm in the August 2004 issue of the Reader, quite a number of changes have taken place on the Willow Creek Farm in the Baraboo Hills area of Wisconsin. These changes include the downing of their iconic willow tree in a heavy storm, and the more recent addition of the farm’s own USDA-inspected meat-processing facility.
Sue and Tony Renger launched Willow Creek Farm Pork in 2002 when they began selling their award-winning, purebred Berkshire hog products at the first Eastside Farmers’ Market. Before long, the demand was so great for their pasture-raised meats that the Willy Street Co-op began offering their bacon, ham and sausages. To anyone who has never tasted their fine products (or never would), the rich and flavorful quality of their meats is unparalleled and its popularity has only soared from that first day.
After selling just 66 hogs in the first year, the Rengers now project that they’ll be marketing between 750–1,000 head this year under their new name, Willow Creek Farms Charcuterie, Inc.
Highly prized for its taste and texture over conventionally raised breeds, Berkshires have long been lauded and protected to preserve the genetics of the animal, qualifying them now as a heritage breed. Historically, they are said to have been discovered by soldiers fighting in the English Civil war in the shire of Berks, however other reports claim that their evolution took place much later, during the late 1700s to early 1800s. Today, Berkshire pork is still preferred by discerning chefs around the globe for its distinctive marbling that lends itself to juicier meat, resulting in a most desirable texture and flavor.
We asked Sue and Tony to talk about some of their achievements over the past few years, the biggest of which was the development of their meat-processing facility, or charcuterie, in Prairie du Sac, WI. They spoke about making the strategic decision to improve on their economies of scale after having hired an outside processor for many years. By opening their own shop they also gained the ability to better control the quality of their product, which is a priceless advantage for anyone selling an artisanal food. Paying heed to a long list of federal regulations and guidelines to create their meat-processing facility, Tony and Sue had their work cut out for them. “Owning your own facility is definitely an achievement in itself,” Sue said. “When you own your own facility there’s a lot of paperwork and—between us managing our farm, other farms, and running the office part —it’s taken on its challenges.”
Despite its many challenges, their successes are providing employment for two full-time staff members who normally work five days a week and both enjoy a full roster of benefits in addition to receiving highly competitive wages for their craft.
After the initial processing of the animals is performed at Black Earth Meats in Black Earth, WI, employees at the charcuterie then begin the process of smoking the meats and sausage-making. Taking advantage of his extensive background in industrial fabrication, Tony has custom-built their meat-smokers, which use hickory chips to provide the smoke—no liquid smoke is used.
The Rengers have been able to enlist three more farm families to assist in raising the pigs, another significant development over the past several years. In a sustainable agreement, each of their farming partners signs a contract stating that they agree to raise the pigs in the same manner as the Rengers, who supply the genetics, production protocols and ration amounts. In turn, the Rengers offer guaranteed pricing to the farmers, and thus provide a stable source of income for them.
Tony and Sue require that their partner farms only raise between 150 and 450 head at a year, be non-CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), offer access to pasture and not use antibiotics or meat products. The farmers assisting the Rengers range from young families to those with as many as three generations on the farm. The Rengers also arrange for all of the pick-ups and deliveries to the processing plant. Tony added that being spread out over four farms lends a sense of security in the event that something unfortunate might happen at one of them, because the others would be able to make up for the loss.
The Renger’s 80 acres of farmland still supplies a large portion of the feed for their pigs. All cultivation on the farm is still accomplished using a no-till method to preserve valuable topsoil.
Although the Rengers appreciate the increase in business, they are also humble. Tony was clear about wanting Willy Street Co-op Owners to know that “Willy Street Co-op needs to take some credit here. You guys drove a lot of this growth. Willy Street Co-op is indirectly responsible for bringing back a number of small family hog farms and they’re earning a living wage.”
At Willow Creek Farms the sows are left to build nests and live in social groups, which allows for other expressions of instinctive behaviors, such as rooting and playing. The birthing process at Willow Creek Farms is much easier on their animals as they give birth and nurse their piglets in large farrowing stalls, larger than factory farm crates. A roll bar attached along one wall helps to protect piglets from their mother when she moves around in the stall. Piglets and sows rest on fresh straw beds and are never poked or prodded. When mothers and piglets are finished in the farrowing house, there are acres of pasture for them to run, root, explore and play on.
Finally, we’ll leave you with that great quote from Tony in the original article: “Our philosophy is that we know our animals have a short life but we want them to have a good life. I think a lot of people, if you gave them that choice, would pick the short, good life.”
Willow Creek Farms Charcuterie, Inc. products are available at both Willy Street Co-op East and West in the meat department. For more information regarding Willow Creek Farms Charcuterie, Inc., see their website at: willowcreekpork.com.