Niche markets are a hot ticket in today’s pork industry and everyone is looking to score.

What exactly is a niche market? “To me it’s any kind of market that’s outside the normal marketing chain,” says Glenn Conatser, University of Tennessee Extension swine specialist.

While identifying and supplying a niche market is no easy task, it does offer increased business opportunities today. That’s because consumers are setting the game plan in terms of defining products and services, and different consumers want different things.

That’s exactly what some pork producers in central Tennessee are banking on. As the Middle Tennessee Fresh Pork Cooperative, these producers are working to supply pork to Hispanic markets in the Nashville and Chattanooga areas, and eventually Memphis.

Why niche marketing? “Tennessee is a small pork production state. We ship hogs to Mississippi now, and we could lose that market,” says David George, a producer with 160 sows. “We are looking for a long-term marketing opportunity and a way to keep area producers viable.”

Fellow producer Jimmy Herndon says he’s involved because he’s looking for price protection and an alternative market for the future. ”I don’t see that we have anything to lose, and if it works, we have plenty to gain.”

Conatser also points to the fall of 1998, and the disparity of prices between live hogs and retail pork. “My goal is to take the retail value of a hog carcass and put that money into producers’ pockets,” he adds.

Why the Hispanic market? “They represent 11 percent of the U.S. population today and are projected to increase 2 percent a year,” Conatser notes. Memphis has a Hispanic population of 80,000 to 100,000, while Nashville adds another 50,000. The co-op has identified 36 and 11 Hispanic markets respectively in the two cities.

But more importantly, the current pork distribution sector has largely ignored this growing ethnic sector. “The products they like to eat are just not available in American supermarkets,” says Conatser.

What prompted the Tennessee activity was a June 1999 visit with Haven Hendricks at Utah State University. For the past few years, Hendricks and some producers have been supplying Hispanic markets in the west with custom-fit pork. “I came away thinking – that’s something we can do,” recalls Conatser.

To get the ball rolling, he organized a niche marketing conference in October 1999 to determine the interest level within the state. Invited to attend were producers, small meat processors, educators, government employees, the state agriculture secretary and some Hispanic community leaders. The last two were significant because it help build their support from the start.

Among the Hispanic community leaders that got involved was Fuad Reveiz, former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings football team. As an area building contractor and football broadcaster for ESPN’s Hispanic markets, Reveiz’s celebrity status within the community runs deep. “He’s been a big help, providing insight and guidance for the project,” says Conatser. He has agreed to participate in a video that will be used to promote the sale of fresh pork to targeted markets.

From the conference, a value-added pork team materialized. This group included a few producers and several University of Tennessee specialists in pork production, meat science and value-added marketing. Also involved were a Spanish-speaking Extension agent and representatives from the state ag development center. This committee developed feasibility studies and action plans.

“No matter who starts developing the program, you have to bring people in with various expertise,” advises Conatser. He acknowledges the benefit of having access to a university with a value-added directive and a state ag development center that has made producer development and marketing opportunities a priority.

Next came the task of lining up producers and organizing the cooperative. Again, a University of Tennessee specialist in cooperatives, Phil Kenkel, has helped develop the legal structure. The co-op is based on delivery rights, meaning members will buy the rights to deliver a percentage of the hogs. In the early stages, 100 hogs per week is the marketing goal. The co-op also has a steering committee made up of three producers.

But the hardest part was identifying the Hispanic markets. The group did this a couple different ways. One was to survey county Extension agents. The other was to actually go into communities and drive up and down the streets.

The co-op also solicited help from a couple of Hispanic students to design and conduct in-store surveys. Developing relationships with the Hispanic markets has proven to be a key factor and is an on-going process, says Conatser.

As for actual hog slaughter, the co-op will hire the services of small processing plants. That will further allow the producers to maintain ownership of the carcass into the meat case. Since the Hispanic markets prefer to receive a fresh, whole carcass, the packing plant will simply eviscerate the carcass.

Again, the co-op organizers did their homework, identifying 20 small processors within the state. Tennessee requires all processors regardless of size to be USDA certified, which is a plus for the co-op as it ensures access to retail markets and the long-term potential to sell product on the Internet. Co-op representatives spent time interviewing plant representatives to determine who was interested in a long-term business arrangement.

Another interesting twist is that the co-op will own or rent some of the meat cases and place them in the markets. A Tennessee Department of Agriculture grant will provide funding for this. “We felt that’s the easiest and surest way to guarantee that the product gets into the store,” says Conatser.

Also, the co-op is considering furnishing a sample carcass to the markets to show what the co-op has to offer. “The markets told us they are paying 75 cents per pound for carcasses – including the head and feet,”says Conatser. “We will have to meet the competition, but our product will be much fresher.”

Response from the markets has been strong, with most expressing interest in doing business with the co-op. “Two things are important to the Hispanic consumer. One is price; the other is freshness,” says Conatser. “Fresh to them is slaughter today, consume today or tomorrow.” Those demands are the type of thing that smaller producers and packing plants can do that large units won’t bother to accommodate.

The hope is to expand the co-op, making it available to more producers. Ultimately, the co-op has its eye on three nice markets. While the Hispanic market is the first target, future plans are to provide fresh pork products to upscale communities in the Nashville area. The third goal is for the group to sell pork through the Internet and deliver it to the consumer’s door. “That’s already happening on the east and west coasts. Within five to six years, it will be a normal way for people to buy groceries,” says Conatser.

Niche opportunities exist. It’s a matter of who has the desire and can develop the game plan to score within those markets.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Herndon. “The hard part is yet to come – the actual implementation. You need people with a strong commitment to the project.”