Value-added partnerships will become an even more valuable tool to the pork industry in the future. The hard part is making the connections to get all the right players together.

Ken Stalder, swine specialist at the University of Tennessee, saw a need and a market for quality hams and helped put the two together.

The need
Producing country hams is an old southern tradition, and the special cure used at Clifty Family Farm has been passed down in Dan Murphy’s family for decades. The Murphy family owns Clifty Farm, the Paris, Tenn., processor that has sold country-cured hams since 1955.

But regardless of the curing process, a quality ham starts with muscle quality. Clifty Farm had been having problems with souring, drip loss and shrink in its country-cured hams. Meanwhile, Stalder was finding similar meat quality problems in his research.

“In one study I had some of the best hams I’d ever seen and some of the worst,” says Stalder. “The lightest and the darkest ham I had ever seen came from the same shipment.”

“One thing we try to sell is consistency. When you buy as many hams as we do, you need a high quality supplier,” says Murphy.

After talking with Murphy, Stalder believed his quality problems could be due to the presence of the Napole gene. Purchasing hams from Napole-free sources could be the solution.

Stalder proposed a project where Clifty Farm would process hams from purebred Duroc hogs and Univeristy of Tennessee researchers would test for quality.

“Pork from Duroc hogs has shown positive quality traits, and there’s enough production volume to fill the project and potential markets,” says Stalder.

The hope is to do more than just eliminate problem hams, but also create a premium product. Clifty Farm would like to produce a premium country ham that could accommodate upscale, white-tablecloth restaurants. Currently, the Italian Prosciutto hams and Serrano hams from Spain attract more value at restaurants and delis than American country hams. That’s the market Murphy wants to tap.

“This project could promote new markets for country hams, and anything that’s good for country hams is good for Clifty Farm,” says Murphy.

In fact, anything that promotes new markets for pork products is good for the pork industry. That is what’s driving producers to participate in this project.

The product
Like all pork producers today, producers raising Duroc hogs are looking for ways to fill new markets and add value to their pork.

“We felt that Durocs have had differential quality for some time, and the National Pork Producers Council’s Genetic Sire Evaluation showed that,” says Everett Forkner, who raises purebred Durocs in Missouri. “Until now, nothing had been done to capitalize on the findings of that study.”

Forkner believes that meat quality can be used to make premium pork products and give American consumers a taste of what premium pork is like – much like the Japanese have experienced. The country-cured ham project is one step in that direction.

Forkner provided about 100 hogs for the project, which is a small percentage of his production. He emphasizes that patience is important in such projects. “All projects have to crawl before they walk, but this one has excellent possibilities,” he says. “Even though white-tablecloth restaurants are not a large percentage of the population, it’s an important market. Clifty Farm, NPPC and the National Swine Registry are trying to drive something new.”

So far, all parties appear satisfied with the direction the project is taking.

“I can tell these hams have more marbling and other quality traits,” says Murphy.

The implementation
The 900 purebred Duroc hogs used for the project were killed at Iowa Sioux-Preme Pack, in two separate groups. Since the hams are sent to Clifty Farm with the skin on, removing the hair – which is always a challenge with dark colored hogs – has been the largest obstacle to overcome.

Stalder and his colleagues ran tests on the finished hams for tenderness, fresh color, pH, shrink and off-odor. The tests were conducted on single-side hams, to avoid testing two hams from the same hog.

Developing a premium product will allow the end processor, in this case Clifty Farm, to add value to its hams. That’s the first step in the chain of value-added products.

“It has to be worth something to Dan Murphy or there’s no value to add,” says Stalder. “It has to be a win-win situation or it won’t work for anyone.”

That doesn’t mean additional value will be passed along to everyone along the chain. Distribution of the wealth is something that will have to be determined as the project progresses.

“We need a packer that’s willing to work with the producers,” says Stalder. “Everyone has to be willing to share the value.”

While all the hogs in the initial test were purebred Durocs, Stalder wants to test the prospect of using Duroc-sired hogs to produce the premium hams.

It’s too early to call this project a savior for purebred Duroc producers, but it’s worth testing the waters. Also, it illustrates what needs to come together to develop a complete value-added picture.

By Tyler Kelley

What Makes a Country Ham?
Only a certain region around Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and Virginias in the United States had the ideal climate for curing a country ham in the days before refrigeration. Today most processors use mechanical equipment to control temperature and humidity so hams can be cured year round.

Next, the packer has to cut the flank off the ham, with a relatively short shank.

Once the fresh hams arrive at Clifty Farm they are rubbed in a salt cure, which includes any number of secret ingredients to give various country hams their distinct flavor. This process generally kills bacteria, and Clifty Farm has a testing lab to double check.

Clifty Farm re-salts its hams a week later. Then they are stored for 40 to 45 days waiting for the ham to “take the salt.” The excess salt is then washed off and the hams are held another 20 to 30 days, during which the flavor evolves.

After that, the hams move to the smoker, where hickory sawdust is typically used. Hams hang in the smoker for seven days to eight days.

The entire process takes about 70 days, according to Dan Murphy, president of Clifty Farm, whom the Tennessee Pork Producers Association named agri-business of the year. Despite these rules of thumb, no two country hams are alike.

“We are very conscious of our reputation and have worked hard to develop a brand,” says Murphy.

He recalls when retailers would rip labels off because brands didn’t matter. Now, times have changed and the label carries an image, saves retailers time and offers the consumer choices.