Cutting out the middleman to increase profit and improve efficiency is Business 101, but when it comes to meat processing, the practice is still rare. Beef, poultry and pork farmers usually have little say in how their product is processed once it leaves the farm. But at Conestoga Meats in Breslau, Ont., the farmers, a co-operative of 120 family farms known as Progressive Pork Producers, owns the processing plant—and this unique arrangement, which begins with a focus on people and sustainability, has helped put the business at the top of the industry. Conestoga Meats is the second-largest pork processor in Ontario, and one of the five largest in Canada.
“The relationship between farmers and processors has typically been somewhat adversarial. When farms are profitable, plants are not and vice versa,” says president Arnold Drung. “By removing the barrier between farm and plant, overall results are levelled out and the focus shifts to maximizing the return for the whole value chain. Integration [between producers and plants] has taken place at other plants, but it has typically been processors buying farm operations, not the other way around.” Its farmer-owned framework makes Conestoga Meats unique in North America, an obvious point of pride for Drung, who has been with the company for 18 years.
He first worked on the farmer side of the historic sale—in 2001, he was hired by Progressive Pork Producers to work on their succession plans for leadership following their purchase of Conestoga. Shortly afterward, he joined the company as president. The farmers were already working with a sustainable, land-based biological cycle: they owned the land and grew the grains to feed the livestock; then, the fertilizer created by the livestock was used to treat and improve the soil. More grains were grown, more livestock raised, and so on. This is still Conestoga’s practice today; owning the plant closes the loop completely. “Not only is it good environmental stewardship, it gives the farmers a cost advantage in raising their hogs—this gives them more staying power when commodity prices are lower,” explains Drung.
Over the past six years, the company has doubled its employees and facility space, the result of an investigation into the plant’s areas of improvement when ranked against its competitors. Important factors surfaced, such as its smaller size and limited production capabilities. “We embarked upon a multi-year expansion program [that is still ongoing], including the expansion of the facilities and the introduction of new processing technologies that allow for the production of [higher] volume, as well as a wider range of finished goods,” says Drung. “We added robotics in our primary processing area, which have made jobs easier and improved product yields. This has driven a significant improvement in company results, as well as in industry reputation overall.” For the past four years, Conestoga Meats has achieved the highest BRC food safety rating of AA.
Having farmer-owners also means the workplace culture comes from a more personal place—the family farm, and by extension, family, is important. “Progressive Pork Producers decided that they wanted Conestoga Meats to be a good place for people to work, which acknowledges an employee’s value to the business and respects them as individuals,” says Drung. The company has an active social committee that plans events, like long-weekend barbecues, winter tubing events, movie viewings and an annual children’s Christmas party—last year, over 400 children attended.
Putting the focus on people has shaped the business in myriad ways. Conestoga Meats hires many new Canadians and refugees. According to Drung, close to 50 countries are represented on the floor. “[I believe] every employee has an impact on the success of the business, regardless of what job they are doing, and that every employee is a person with an interesting background, a family, and their own hopes and dreams,” says Drung. Management has developed practices, like visual job cues across the board, that help with language barriers. “The Conestoga way starts with ‘People First,’ and we truly try to live this every day,” says Drung. “I am always amazed when visitors remark on how happy the employees seem to be. That’s not something that they typically see in a manufacturing facility. To me, that’s a clear manifestation of our people-first culture.”