Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.
When Alan and Nicola Irving set up their new business producing fresh British-style sausages and bacon, they knew they would be popular with ex-pat Brits like themselves. But four years later business is booming because Albertans have discovered their lean, healthy range of fresh and cured pork products.
“When we arrived in Canada, we found that the fresh, lean British sausages we had been used to were not readily available here, and so began to make our own, Nicola explains. Having turned the basement at their home in Vimy, northwest of Edmonton, into an inspected food-processing facility, they began producing the first sausages in June 2006.
Business grew so rapidly that two years later they had outgrown their production capacity, resulting in a move to a small farm at Round Hill, just north of Camrose. They converted a large workshop to a new 1,500-square-feet production facility and spent $80,000 on equipment.
Since they started out, the Irvings’ range of fresh pork sausage has grown to around a dozen varieties, ranging from old favourites like English Breakfast and Cumberland sausages to Sundried Tomato and Basil, Habanero Chili and the latest offering, Indian Masala Mild Curry. They also sell bacon chops (a very thick-cut version of the back bacon), gammon steaks, which are made from pork leg cured similarly to bacon, sausage patties, sausage meat and old-fashioned boiling ham. New products are constantly being developed.
All the sausages are gluten free, which has been a good selling point, Nicola points out. “About one-third of our customers have celiac disease so gluten free is a big market,” she says.
Once the Irvings started to sell the sausages, their ex-pat customers asked them when they were going to make British bacon. This style of bacon is made from the loin and is unsmoked. “We went over to see a friend who is a partner in a big farm shop in the north of England and she showed us how to dry cure the bacon,” Nicola explains.
The dry-cured back bacon now has a big following among health-conscious Albertans, once they discover how great it tastes. “Getting people to try it is the challenge, but when they do, they say it’s like candy and the best bacon they have ever eaten,” Nicola says.
In addition to sausage and bacon, the Irvings sell Berkshire pork to both high-end restaurants and to retail customers. Although they originally bred and reared a few pigs for sale, high demand for the meat led them to pool their sows with those of Ron and Karen Sobey at Belle Valley Berkshires, near Morinville. The Sobeys do the breeding and weaners are transferred to Round Hill at 100 lbs. for finishing by the Irvings. The pigs are all reared outdoors and slaughtered at 200 lbs.
Demand for Berkshire pork is so high that more production is now needed. About 40 per cent of sales are to restaurants and the other 60 per cent to retail, with all products sold with the skin on. “Restaurants are limited as to what they will take; they want tenderloins, chops, belly and bacon,” Nicola notes. “Fortunately, our farmers’ market and retail customers want leg and shoulder roasts and we are training them to take shoulder steaks rather than chops!”
Anything that is not sold as fresh pork goes into sausage production, because it’s essential to utilize the whole pig otherwise it is not economic, she stresses.
The Irvings’ range of products is sold in a variety of outlets including delis, farmers’ markets, hotels and sales via their website. This allows direct contact with the customers, which is invaluable in understanding what they want and making sure they get it.
“We want to be able to explain what we do and why we do it,” says Nicola. “We get a lot of questions about how the pork is produced and can tell people exactly how the pigs are reared.”
But, she admits, there is a lot of confusion about production methods. “People ask whether it is organic, but is this better than being ‘naturally raised,’ especially bearing in mind the extremely high cost of organic feed?” she asks. “They assume welfare is better for our pigs, but terms such as pasture raised and outdoor reared need to be more clearly defined for the consumer.”
Sales growth has been exponential, with a near doubling of sales from 2008 to 2009 and the 2010 sales budget already reached by the middle of the year. The Irvings believe that there is still a huge amount of potential and would like to be able to sell outside Alberta, which would mean sourcing raw materials from a federally inspected plant. They would also eventually like to get their bacon on supermarket shelves to provide an alternative to regular smoked side bacon.
Alan and Nicola Irving have tapped into a growing demand for lean, high-quality pork products and their own longing for British bangers and bacon has resulted in a highly successful business. Their full range of products can be seen at www.irvingsfarmfresh.com.