Nahunta Pork Center

From all states in the Union, people come to Pikesville, NC, to choose from more than 80 different retail pork offerings by Nahunta Pork Center. On average, each customer will carry out more than 50 pounds of fresh pork. One of the few marketing rules broken by Nahunta is “location, location, location.” It is located at a county intersection in North Carolina, in the heart of the most rapidly growing and technologically advanced region of swine production in the world. Nahunta Pork Center, on the surface, reminds one of simpler times when people frequented neighborhood markets and supported community merchants. On a deeper level, Nahunta Pork epitomizes two fundamental premises on marketing – uncomprising customer service and production and marketing flexibility.

Mack Pierce began raising hogs as breeding stock, but he always wanted to get into the slaughter business. In 1955, he began slaughtering hogs and selling the pork on a custom basis to individuals. In the 1960s, Pierce began selling whole carcass hogs to local grocers. In 1975, he opened a retail outlet in a converted bulk tobacco barn. During the first week three hogs were processed for retail sale. They were sold out in a matter of hours, and Nahunta Pork was off and running. The original tobacco barn is still a part of Nahunta Pork Center as it exists today. In 1984, 10,500 hogs were processed. By 1992, this had grown to 23,000, and by 1999, the number had expanded to 40,000 hogs per year.

Currently, Nahunta Pork Center owns no hogs. They are purchased from both large and small local producers. Delivery time is scheduled in consideration to the size of hogs needed. Hogs are priced from the Iowa/southern Minnesota quotes for the day, although producers often receive a premium mark-up as well. Nahunta prefers to purchase lighter colored hogs because they pick and clean better than either durocs or hamps.

Purchased hogs are brought directly to a holding facility connected to the slaughter plant. Hogs may weigh from 80-pound roasters to 400-pound sows. The holding facility is spacious, extraordinarily clean and bedded with wood shavings. Hogs are provided full feed and water. There are two beneficial aspects of this seemingly routine setup. First, the holding period greatly reduces stress on the hogs. Second, since every hog is slaughtered on demand, the needed size of hog will be readily available. If an order for roaster pigs comes in, the lightest weight pigs can be slaughtered. If the demand for sausage is heavy, more sows are selected to meet that demand.

The packing plant is a relatively standard configuration. The present capacity of 170 head per day is due to cooler capacity limitations. One unique feature of the plant is that it is fully finished in stainless steel, which Pierce estimates would add $1.5 million to the cost of a similar sized plant. The stainless steel is not required by HACCP, but adds to the ease of cleaning and contributes to the extraordinarily high quality of the operation. It is estimated that the current replacement cost of all the facilities at Nahunta Pork would be $10-15 million.

The slaughter operation requires 10 employees. They are expected to arrive at the plant at 5 a.m. and remain until the necessary hogs are slaughtered. This ties into the “just-in-time” aspect of the production. Costs of slaughter are approximately $20 per head. Processing, which includes smoking and cooking, is $20 per head and cost of retailing, which includes final cutting, wrapping, labeling and customer service, is about $20 per head. Total employment averages 70, with an annual payroll of $1.6 million.

As a quality standard, no pork is sold at Nahunta Pork Center as fresh product that is more than 48-56 hours after slaughter or 36 hours out of the packing plant cooler. After that time limit, the meat is frozen and discounted 30 to 50 cents per pound. Another unique aspect of marketing is that no empty space is allowed to show at any time during sales hours. This is done so customers will not feel like the case has been picked over.

Country cured hams (30,000 per year) are a significant part of the operation, comprising 25 per cent of total sales. The salting process takes five weeks with each ham hand rubbed with salt three times. Hams are hung in an 81-degree Fahrenheit room with 50-60 per cent humidity for an average of five to six months. They are treated with sodium nitrate to protect against trichinae, so they may be eaten uncooked. There are between 200 and 300 hams on display at all times. Currently 75 per cent of all hams are sold as sliced product to reflect changes in customer preference and lifestyle. The seasonal increase in demand for hams in November and December requires the stockpiling of hams from February to April.

Sausage is another major product at Nahunta, with an average of 10,000 to 15,000 pounds sold per week. However, in peak seasonal demand, it may sell as much as 30,000 to 40,000 pounds per week. Nahunta offers two basic types of sausage: Italian and English. Both are offered in either mild or hot varieties.

When asked about advice for pork producers who wanted to move up the market channel, the owners of Nahunta recommended growers start at farmers markets rather than investing in a formal retail outlet. This allows the producer to become acquainted with customers, discover their preferences and build a solid base before making investments. Nahunta has been in business for 44 years, and it is unrealistic to immediately develop a market of its size. Mack Pierce says he has opened his doors to 20 individuals attempting to replicate the Nahunta Pork Center. He knows of only one company in existence, and it has been restructured twice. Four traits succinctly characterize Nahunta Pork Center operations: specialization; product flow management and responsiveness; product quality; and customer service.

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