Hoffman, Minn. — “I kept thinking, ‘How can this be happening?’ But it was happening. All we could do was just hang on.”

That’s David Starner’s recollection of 1997-1998, when 12 months of plunging hog prices wiped out half the equity he had built farming 18 years. Starner and his brothers, the fourth generation to farm in Grant County, run an 800-sow, farrow-to-finish hog operation in Grant County.

Hog prices improved in the second half of 1999. Yet industry consolidation, global competition and changing consumer demands still threaten family farmers, Starner says. To compete, he says, independent growers must cooperate to supply “a defined raw product,” one that can be distinguished from all others in the marketplace.

Starner is leading a group of Minnesota pork producers who want to gain that competitive edge by raising certified pork.

Minnesota Certified Pork, a new-generation cooperative, has developed quality assurance standards to define and document every aspect of hog production. The standards, combined with compliance certification, will enable MNCEP to offer distinctive, identity-preserved pork products. Members hope certification will give them access to specialized markets.

AURI, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are helping MNCEP implement the certification plan — the first in the nation — and find markets for certified hogs. If MNCEP is successful, similar certification programs could be developed for other Minnesota farm products.

Quality assurance

The core of MNCEP is a set of quality standards that define every procedure related to raising market hogs. Developed by cooperative members and Thomas Blaha, epidemiologist, and Jerry Shurson, swine center director at the University of Minnesota, the standards emphasize food safety, efficient management and responsible stewardship. Standards include best production practices, on-farm food safety practices, environmental protection and manure management, community relations and animal well-being.

MNCEP’s quality system also requires thorough documentation to verify compliance with standards and to allow MNCEP pork to be traced back to the farm where it was grown. The plan calls for monthly farm audits by trained inspectors. Compliance with binding standards will lead to certification by the State of Minnesota.

MNCEP standards, which took more than a year to develop, are now being implemented by 10 Minnesota hog producers who manage about 6,000 sows.

Third-party certified

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and U of M are developing a program to certify agricultural production standards like those devised by MNCEP.

Minnesota Certified, or MnCERT, was authorized last year by the Minnesota Legislature. Paul Strandberg, ag department project manager, says MnCERT will offer neutral, third-party certification that farmers have carried out the procedures necessary to back up their product claims.

The process is similar to ISO 9000 certification in the manufacturing sector, coming into play “when farmers find a market they want to supply and that market wants certain assurances about how the product is produced,” Strandberg says.

The state ag department is working with Minnesota Certified Pork to create guidelines and requirements for state certification. Eventually, those guidelines could be used to certify production methods for any Minnesota farm product, Strandberg says.

“As far as we know,” he adds, “we’re the first state to try this.”

What’s it worth?

Once all the pieces are in place, MNCEP will be able to certify whatever production methods a customer wants. What will that certification be worth?

“That’s the question,” says Starner, 50, past president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and past chair of the Association’s research committee. Because livestock production methods have never before been certified, “this is like a new product launch.”

AURI helped with a survey the cooperative conducted last year to see who might be interested in certified hogs. The study identified several potential markets, which MNCEP is now exploring. The co-op is talking with a major U.S. packing company, five specialty meat distributors and several export meat brokers.

Thomas Blaha believes that Japan and Europe are excellent prospects for MNCEP certified pork. Consumers want assurances that meat has been raised and processed under strict food-safety standards, he says. Japanese meat brokers, for example, “insist on an on-farm salmonella-control program.”

Americans are also becoming more aware of how their food is raised, Strandberg says. “Look in the grocery store or on restaurant menus and you’ll see things like free range, antibiotic free, animal friendly and beyond organic. We think the markets will keep developing that way.”

MNCEP will be in a good position to supply pork tailored to these changing demands, says Michael Sparby, manager of AURI’s Morris office. “Certification pulls them out of the commodity market and into identity-preserved, which is in its infancy but growing rapidly.”

Independent or interdependent?

At this point, “MNCEP is still mostly an idea,” Starner concedes. Members are working to fulfill the quality standards, costs of compliance are uncertain, certification is pending and marketing agreements are still in the negotiating stage.

A family farmer for 20 years, Starner also understands agriculture from the processing side. As a regional manager for Jennie-O Foods in the 1970s, he oversaw the production of 1.6 million turkeys a year.

“I saw where the poultry industry went in my six years — the efficiencies, the ability to control quality. And I saw that all of agriculture would follow.”

Starner says MNCEP represents a new model for agriculture. Independent farmers, working together in alliances and cooperatives, can gain advantage and, Starner adds, “The only way we can maintain our independence is to become interdependent.”