Q&A DOUG CLEMENS
HIS FAMILY-OWNED 123-YEAR-OLD COMPANY KICK-STARTED A NEW PORK PACKING REVOLUTION.
Family-owned 123-year-old company kickstarted a new pork packing revolution.
Doug Clemens’ great-grandfather was a Pennsylvania hog farmer who expanded into pork packing in a big way. Today, Clemens Food Group has two 10,000-head-a-day hog processing plants, one in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and a new plant in Coldwater, Michigan. About 300 members of the Clemens family are shareholders in the sixgeneration company. The core values set forth by John C. Clemens in 1895 – ethics, integrity, and stewardship – remain deeply rooted in the company today.
SF: In 2014, you were approached by a group of Michigan hog producers about partnering on a new plant. Why Clemens?
DC: They said it was because of our reputation in the industry. In 1998 when the hog market dropped to single digits, we put in a floor. We knew that without producers, we didn’t exist. Our values and their values aligned. We compete against companies that are Chineseand Brazilian-owned. We are not looking to spin this company in three years.
SF: The Coldwater plant launched a wave of new pork processing construction.
DC: I keep wondering, what in the world did we start? The Coldwater plant was the first time we could lay out something beginning to end and become extremely efficient. Others decided to do the same thing for that reason. We spent two years building the plant and opened September 5, 2017 – on time and on budget.
SF: How did you make the producer partnership work?
DC: It’s a journey that begins with open, honest dialogue and speaking the truth even when the truth hurts. We are still learning. Don’t think for one second that we have it all figured out. We don’t.
SF: Can additional pork producers get involved?
DC: Yes, especially as we work toward the next shift. They have to have the right values and right vision for the future.
SF: When will you double shift the plant?
DC: That will be driven by the availability of hog supply, the availability of people, and demand. I would say within the next three to five years, not sooner.
SF: Clemens has 66,330 sows today. Why did you get into hog production?
DC: We never had the wish, the want, or the desire to get into hog production. We did it out of necessity. The hog supply started to go down. If we wanted to remain sustainable for generations to come, we had to be responsible for our own supply.
SF: What big issue are you dealing with today?
The tariff situation with our export partners, specifically China and Mexico. Almost 30% of the pork produced in the U.S. is exported to other places in the world, so it has had a significant impact on our earnings. There are parts and pieces of the pig that Americans don’t want to consume. We have to maximize every single part of that pig and try to generate some value from it. It’s a challenge.
SF: What is the solution?
DC: Perseverance, patience, and hope that those who have the ability will make these trade deals happen. I do not believe that bailouts or handouts are a longterm solution.
SF: What products are hot?
DC: Bacon. It’s the easiest thing to sell. The belly used to be the hardest part of the pig to get rid of. We can’t get rid of loins now.
SF: Did pigs get too lean?
DC: No doubt about it. There was inconsistency in the quality of hogs, from way fat to way lean to everything in between, so we started incentivizing toward lean. We recently launched a line we call Premium Reserve. We developed a way to reintroduce marbling back into the loin product by using fat trimmings. It’s got taste, it’s easy to cut, and you can’t overcook it.
SF: What would you like to tell farmers?
Embrace change, whether you like it or not. Take the open-pen gestation issue, for example. We started experimenting with that long before it was mentioned by any consumer group. We are always challenging ourselves and anticipating changes that may be coming down the road from our customers.