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Minnesota hog producers market ‘the Black Angus of pork’

COVID-19 nudged many livestock producers into direct sales marketing, but the Compart family of Nicollet, Minnesota, has been innovating direct pork sales to their business for about two decades. Five families in two generations are co-owners, promoting sophisticated Duroc swine breeding as the “Black Angus of pork.” Their online and retail meat now accounts for about half of their farm’s income.

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NICOLETT, Minn. — While COVID-19 nudged many livestock producers into branded meat marketing, one family – the Comparts of Nicollet — have been at it for 20 years.

Compart Family Farms Premium Duroc Pork Inc. moved into marketing as a result of earlier production and market shocks. The Compart family over the years has shifted from a cropping to the purebred seedstock, expanded into commercial hog production, and finally into a branded pork program that today accounts for 50% to 60% of the family’s farm revenue.

Shortened to “ Compart Family Farms ,” they sell branded meat cuts online, to restaurants, and through distributors, marketing a whopping 2,400 pigs a week (125,000 animals per year). They proudly label their products the “black Angus of pork.” They are among the elite pork producers in a state that ranks in the top three in hog production.

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Duroc hogs initially didn’t fit the “lean craze” of the 1980s and 1990s, but Compart Family Farms touted their meat “marbling” that put their premium products into white table cloth restaurants. Photo taken in Minnesota in 2021. Contributed / Compart Family Farms

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Along with their pig enterprises, the Comparts raise about 2,900 acres of crops in Nicollet County and near Princeton, Minnesota. About 60% is corn and up to 40% soybeans. They feed almost all of the corn to their pigs. They sell soybeans to CHS, about 25 miles away in Mankato, Minnesota, where they also buy soybean meal.

The Comparts have faced challenges along the road to becoming a supplier of premier pork, now marketed as Compart Duroc.

“A lot of times you come out stronger than when you went into them,” said Jim Compart, one of the partners in the business.

4-H, pseudorabies and a comeback

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Today’s partners of Compart Family Farms at Nicollet, Minnesota, are sons of Richard and Bonnie Compart, who started a purebred hog enterprise in the 1950s that began with a 4-H project. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Ottomar and Alma Compart farmed in Minnesota and ran a typical diversified farm that included pigs.

Their first introduction to Duroc pigs came in 1942, through their son Richard’s 4-H project.

Rich and his wife Bonnie would return in 1957 to the farm at Nicollet, where they milked Jersey cows and raised purebred Durocs.

The Comparts in 1965 added Hampshires, known to be lean and muscular, producing larger pork chops, as a second breed to go with the Durocs, known for rapid growth rate, a good appetite and good quality pork. Three years later, the pork enterprise was successful enough that they sold their cows.

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In the early-1970s, Compart sons came into the operation.

First Marc, now 64, and Jim, 60, came home to the farm. The young brothers traveled the country, showing Duroc pigs at state fairs in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Dean, now 62, graduated in animal science from the University of Minnesota. Chris, now 54, eventually joined.

They had the champion boar at the National Barrow Show in 1974 — a Duroc. The Comparts grew to be among the four or five largest among about 30 purebred swine breeders in the state.

In 1987, the Comparts suffered a huge shock. The farm was hit by pseudorabies, a disease that causes hog abortions and deaths, and crosses into dogs, cats, sheep and cattle.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantined their farm for 25 months.

“It made Black Monday on Wall Street look like a walk in the park,” Dean recalled. “We were completely devastated and crippled.”

Pseudorabies forced many hog producers out of the business. But the Comparts — with four sons in their 20s — were determined to claw back.

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“We purchased animals from Ohio that were very high-health — all Yorkshires and Landrace. None of our genetics,” Dean said.

They created a new herd by taking sows from their infected farm to an Iowa laboratory where a veterinarian took the pigs out in a “sterile bubble” cesarean section. Marc took those baby pigs home in boxes to a Lehigh, Iowa, farm, where Marc’s father-in-law raised swine breeding stock.

There they “cross-fostered” them with sows that had farrowed the same day.

“That’s how we established our genetics into that Iowa farm,” Dean said.

The Comparts started selling breeding stock out of Iowa in 1988 and resumed raising conventionally-raising hogs at the home farm. They had 400 sows that had been through the disease and used a high-quality, effective “marker” vaccine to verify immunity.

And they formed alliances with other pork producing families to raise and market more cross-bred gilts, eventually supplying genetics for about 300 commercial farms, throughout the Midwest and beyond.

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Dean Compart shows a chart that indicates the trend toward increased desirable intramuscular fat, or “marbling,” which makes Compart Family Farms pork products desirable for “white tablecloth” restaurant markets across the country. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Comparts also have run into market shocks, like a national low-fat and “lean craze” in the 1990s. Pork packing companies implemented “carcass-based buying systems,” which paid primarily on leanness — the “absence of fat,” Dean said. American Duroc hogs were fast-gainers, but not known for leanness.

In 1992, Jim Compart traveled to Denmark to buy leaner Duroc boars. Compart pigs became “dramatically lean.” But then consumers were saying they didn’t like super-lean pork.

In the mid-1990s, National Pork Producers Council completed a National Genetic Evaluation study of hog breeds. Among other things, the study found Duroc — the Comparts’ main breed — had more fat marbling (juicy strains of fat within the meat), better meat color and desirable higher-pH pork than other breeds. Some of the breeds that were leaner, notably, were “terrible for meat quality.”

The NPPC also had a “Quality Lean Growth Modeling Project,” which looked at meat quality characteristics of various breeds and crosses. The Duroc breed won the taste tests. In fact, the the Duroc breed association tried to capitalize by branding purebred Duroc meat as its own brand. Marc participated, but the effort fizzled for logistical reasons.

Defining value

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A chart shows increases in intermuscular fat in Compart Family Farms breeding stocks over the past 20 years, measured by ultrasound. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Comparts in the mid-1990s started doing their own meat quality research on their own genetics. They documented and selected for meat color — dark reddish pink. They documented and increased marbling from an average of 1.7% to 3%-5%.

In 1997, the Comparts coordinated and invested in a co-op of producers that built two sow farms — Steamboat Pork, a 1,250-sow farm near Klossner, Minnesota, (north of New Ulm) and Precision Pork, a 2,400-sow barn at Alden, Minnesota (west of Albert Lea). Both facilities eventually added sophisticated HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that remove airborne particles.

The co-ops raised their own replacement sows as well as the Duroc-sired market pigs that are weaned and taken to nursery farms at about 13 to 14 pounds.

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The Comparts of Nicollet, Minnesota, promote their red-colored Duroc hog breeding and feeding program as providing the “Black Angus of pork” in meat quality, and have the trademark on the term. Photo taken in 2021. Contributed / Compart Family Farms

The Comparts sold gilts to their “customer base” of pork producers who could quickly produce numbers to meet the market for premium meat. Their pork finishers liked that they could tie into a premium market without shifting into becoming contract producers.

In 1998, the Comparts started Pinpoint Research to do research on the best way commercial farmers would feed the leaner, faster-growing pigs coming out of the sow farms they owned cooperatively. The first results came out in 1999.

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Compart Family Farms touts its Duroc breeding basis, and have selected for premium meat color and marbling standards that are constantly improving. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Significantly, they specified levels of dried distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production. Feeders were moving away from feeding based on crude protein values and increasingly replaced soybean meal with synthetic amino acids. Now, they could finish pigs with high-quality meat two weeks faster than they did only a decade earlier.

The ‘Angus of pork’

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Compart Family Farms sells its premium products through restaurants, and to online customers through a store based one of their farmsteads. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In 2001, the Comparts were ready to launch their “branded pork” program under the Compart Family Farms brand. In 2003, they actually trademarked the catchphrase “the Black Angus of pork.”

“That quickly made the (consumer) association of Black Angus as a purebred animal, like Duroc is a purebred animal,” Jim said.

The Comparts specified a high-protein diet to anyone supplying pigs for their brand.

“They were going to incur a higher expense. Because to feed the pig the way we wanted it fed wasn’t the cheapest way to feed them,” Dean said.

In 2003, the branded meat program started at 75 animals a week. In six years, they went to 400 a week, having them processed “custom-toll basis,” initially through Sioux-Preme Packing Company at Sioux City, Iowa. In recent years they’ve increased to 2,400 head a week and now account for one day’s slaughter at Premium Iowa Pork, at Hospers, Iowa.

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The Compart Family Farms management includes two generations in one of Minnesota’s most prominent hog families. Photo circa 2021. Contributed / Compart Family Farms

Initially, the Comparts sold their branded pork through small, family-owned distributors, starting with Swanson Meats Inc., a Minneapolis-based distributor serving the food service industry.

“We thought we hit the big time — selling pork in Minneapolis,” Jim said

They quickly learned that if they identified a customer-distributor, they had to build other clients in an area to make the freight cost work.

In about 2005, they went to the National Restaurant Show in Chicago and have been going there ever since.

“That’s what really opened our eyes up to the rest of the country,” Jim said.

At the start, Jim was doing the sales and traveling. They added a western sales representative and an eastern sales rep and now work through distributors U.S. Foods, Sysco, Ben E. Keith Foods, Shamrock Foods Distribution and Food Supply.

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A UPS truck picks up pre-holiday orders from the Compart Family Farms online store warehouse near Nicollet, Minnesota, on Dec. 14, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Prior to COVID, about 85% of their products were sold through restaurants. Their forte is the “white table cloth” trade. Their products are on restaurant menus from Disney World to Delmonico’s Steak House on Wall Street to Manny’s Steak House in Minneapolis.

Since COVID, they have increased products sales to other manufacturers, including some additional retail. They have created a significant online distribution system, based on the farm. Among other things, the Comparts offer “dry-aged” pork, which is something typically associated with beef. Jim said the process is done at about 33 degrees Fahrenheit for about two weeks, breaking down connective tissue for greater tenderness.

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A UPS driver picks up boxes of Compart Family Farms pork at the farm’s online store at Nicollet, Minnesota, on Dec. 14, 2021. Because of the season, the service was using a rented truck. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Of course, there is a premium. Wholesale products to grocers are roughly 30 to 50 cents a pound more than for conventional animals, depending on the cut and specifications. Retail customers pay 60 cents to $1 a pound more than for conventional.

While the future looks sunny for Compart pork, change is always coming.

In the meat business, the Comparts are keeping an eye on Proposition 12 in California, where voters voted that animals must be in open pens with 25-square feet, which could force livestock producers to rebuild or go out of business.

“It’s unfortunate for the people of California because it’s going to drive their food costs way up,” Jim said. “It’s an issue with interstate commerce.”

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Compart Family Farms sells its premium products through restaurants, and to online customers through a store based one of their farmsteads. Photo taken Dec. 14, 2021, at Nicollet, Minnesota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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