Frankes of Roggen find success in raising hogs for Whole Foods

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The view from the family farm of Chad and Carolyn Franke is breathtaking. The entire span of the snow-capped Front Range stands to the west, with Pikes Peak to the south, Longs Peak to the north, and Mount Evans in the middle. A glance to the north reveals the white grain elevator in Roggen, a community along I76. The farm is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of fields and farms.

Living on the high plains is a way of life for the Frankes. Running a farm is a business, too. The Frankes raise hogs for Whole Foods. It is a marketing arrangement that works well for seller and buyer.

“We kind of fell into the Whole Foods deal,” says Chad. “We have been raising a few pigs for freezer pigs. I was delivering some pigs to the processor who packages the cuts and overheard Dave Ellicott, the owner at Innovative Foods, talking about needing to find more people to grow Berkshires for the Whole Foods market. I got to talking to him some and mentioned we might be interested if the numbers work. After running the numbers and making plans, we had our first Berkshire sows within about a month and delivered the first GAP certified market hogs for Whole Foods nine months later.”

Innovative Foods Custom Meat Processing is owned by Dave and Tami Ellicott. The facility is located in Evans, a small community just south of Greeley. GAP stands for Global Animal Partnership, a non-profit organization whose standards spell out how to assure animals are raised with high attention to their welfare. Whole Foods promotes GAP certification for the meat products it makes available to consumers.

“Whole Foods is very interested in sourcing and selling local foods,” says Chad. “They try to buy as much as possible within the sales regions. Berkshire pork is well known as a premium meat and Whole Foods can’t get enough to satisfy their demand. I believe there are currently six producers including myself and we are supplying enough pork for six to eight stores of the 34 Whole Foods locations in the region.”

Berkshire hogs require a lot of feed and their litters tend to be fewer than other breeds. This means the production costs are higher. The reward is a cut of pork that appeals to consumers, and at a high level.

Returning to his farming roots

If Chad and Carolyn Franke make farming look easy, be assured it takes hard work to start from scratch and build a sustainable operation. If they give you the impression they have been doing this for years, well, that deserves an explanation. Chad considers himself to be a beginning farmer: he simply started later in his adult life than others who grew up and stayed on a family farm

Chad himself grew up northeast of Akron on a farm that his family homesteaded about 100 years ago. “My siblings and I are the fifth generation on that farm. My Dad, Vernon, grew wheat, feed, and raised cattle. I had pigs when I was in 4H, starting with a 4H “catch it” breeding project. I guess farming is in the blood for me.”

“I think I got my first gilt when I was 10 or 12. I had pigs through high school, then took a break for a while. We have had hogs now for about eight years. We currently have 14 sows, mostly registered Berkshires, with a few cross-bred sows for the freezer pigs. We are wanting to continue to expand the Berkshire herd, but are going to grow it without debt so it will be a slow growth strategy.”

Today, Chad’s sister lives on the original family farm. Chad followed a different career path after he graduated from college, but then the desire to make a living from farming returned in earnest.

Carolyn grew up in the Denver area until she was a sophomore in high school and moved to rural Colorado. “I am very unfamiliar as to most things farming, which may be of benefit to what Chad and I have going on now,” she says. “I sometimes act as a sounding board for the ‘does this make sense’ questions.”

Chad and Carolyn owned a place near Keenesburg, yet they wanted more land. “When we sold our place at Keenesburg, our requirements for another place were mature trees, more than 10 acres, and in the same school district,” explains Chad. “The place we have now is the one place that was on the market that fit that list, and it had the benefit of having been used for hog production 20 years ago.” It became home for Chad, Carolyn, their son Tim (age 13) and daughter Brooke (age 11).

Farming is both capital and labor intensive. It takes a good supply of money and an investment measured in long hours and sweat equity. The biggest challenge is capital and access to land and water. For Chad, access to capital was critical. “Carolyn having a good job has been a great help, but the cash flow we needed to get the first batch of pigs to market weight was significant. The Frankes did have access to more cash than they needed in the form of loans. “Our goal was to start with a minimum of debt, reducing our risk if our market changed. We’ve been very fortunate. We had access to the capital we needed to get started on our small scale and good enough jobs to keep cash flow up.”

When the chance to raise hogs for Whole Foods came up, Carolyn wondered what might be risky about the arrangement. “My answer was putting all of our eggs in one basket… or piglets in one trailer. I believe we still need to diversify, which I know Chad has plans of doing. I believe we need to do a better job of long-term planning. I think this is an area we can improve on tremendously.”

Advice for beginning farmers

Chad says anyone wanting to start in production agriculture will do well to find a niche market that has higher margins. “It’s impossible to think about starting with a commodity-type product like wheat or corn and make it worthwhile without massive debt, even if loans are available to the level needed. To compete against established operations on a small margin crop isn’t realistic for a beginner,” he says. This is especially true for start-up operations as compared to a generational transfer on an established family farm. “Find a small niche like organic or specialty crops that are in demand and that have a market that pays a good premium, or find an emerging market to build into. Our market is one that we have been able to start small in scale and grow as opportunities allow.”

Beginning farmers need to keep their operations tailored to their markets, continues Chad. “I believe now is actually a very good time for beginning farmers, especially in this area. We have so many premium niche markets available that it is possible to begin an operation on a comparatively small scale investment… if you have reasonable expectations and are willing to invest the sweat equity to build an operation and, if you choose, a market.”

Carolyn agrees, adding, “My advice for those wanting to get into farming is to have little or no debt going into the endeavor, as you will pick up quite a bit more when you get started.”

While hogs are the primary focus of their operation, the Frankes grow feed crops including hay and sudex for the pigs, which is one of the GAP requirements. “We keep one calf that we feed out for our freezer, and we have chickens that supply us with eggs, and Carolyn sells extras to people at her office.”

Active in community and ag leadership

Farming is a way of life as well as a way of making a living. “We love living in the country because even though we have few neighbors, they are true neighbors. Even if they live five miles away, we can count on them if we need to. In cities you may live 20 feet from a neighbor and never know their name,” he adds.

For Carolyn, there are values to be appreciated and lessons to be learned by living away from concrete and condos. “I believe that living on a farm better grounds us and our children on where our food really comes from, and what it really takes to put a meal on the table.”

Community involvement and taking on leadership roles is a tradition for the Frankes. Chad volunteers as a coach for the various activities in which their children participate. The Frankes are also active in the PTA at school and Chad recently was elected to the board of directors for the Colorado Pork Producer’s Council.

The Frankes are a Farmers Union family. “My dad was involved with RMFU from the 1980s farm crisis on. He spent many years on the board of directors, including being chairman for a number of years,” says Chad. “I started attending summer camps when I was in second grade, got my Torchbearer award, and was counselor at camps. Carolyn and I took part in the RMFU Fellows program a few years ago,” he adds. Today, Chad is president of Weld County Farmers Union. Carolyn is the Weld County Farmers Union youth leader.