Leap of faith
March 26, 2012
Some things just happen for a reason. Just ask Dwight Ely, owner of Ely Farm Products at Newtown, Pa., how he got into the meat business.
Ely had grappled his way to a full-ride wrestling scholarship at the Univ. of Tennessee in the early 1980s. And while setting his sights on finishing as a top-three NCAA athlete, he also pursued an agronomy degree he thought would continue the “tractor time” he loved as the seventh-generation representative on the family’s 100 acres near Washington’s Crossing.
Then came, what he thought at the time, was a pair of unfortunate career-ending knee surgeries. The setback turned out to be a blessing that launched him into a cutting-edge career of operating a small meat-processing enterprise.
The stocky farm boy was at the right place at the right time when Dr. Gordon Davis came to Tennessee from Texas A&M, where he was one of the nation’s most prominent meat-judging coaches. Ely signed up as a meat judge under Davis, who wanted to build a new meat-judging team from scratch in Knoxville. When he asked Ely to write down what he expected to accomplish in meat judging, the former wrestler indicated he wanted to be in the top three in the country.
Ely, now 53, worked diligently to accomplish that goal, finishing second in national meat judging and first in yield grading. He was so proficient that Davis took him to the top meat plants he consulted with and encouraged him to help manage the university’s meat lab. He switched his major to animal and meat science and was advised to work at a large plant after graduation. He spent a year on the kill floor at Hatfield’s pork packing plant in Kulpmont, Pa.
“The Good Lord had something in mind for me,” Ely states. “I went back home and planned to open a niche market with a farrow-to-finish hog operation. I built my own meat plant with $20,000 I borrowed from an uncle and did a lot of custom butchering. Six years later, I went under USDA inspection. I gave up beef slaughter and focused entirely on pork and eased out of the custom trade for farmers.
“I saw that there were very few farms left in my area and what remained were under preservation agreements,” he adds. “Our farm would remain a working farm.”
Much of American history traces its roots to the Ely farm, which dates back to the 1700s. George Washington actually set up his headquarters for the attack on the British-allied Hessians in Trenton a half mile from the farm, and crossed the Delaware a half mile on the other side of the same farm.
Learning from the best
Ely was advised to attend a Pennsylvania Association of Meat Processors convention and did. Because money was tight, he threw a mattress into the back of his pickup truck and planned to sleep there overnight. Representatives of Pioneer Equipment Co. (now PCS), had a hospitality room at the meeting and invited him to stay.
“I was so enlightened by what I learned there and by the quality people I met,” Ely notes. “They shared so many things with me and let me visit their plants on the way home. I started going to every meeting I could. One year, the American Association of Meat Processors [AAMP] had their convention in Las Vegas. My wife, Susan, and I took a ham to enter in the American Cured Meat Championships. We took it as a way to test the waters and it turned out to be a national champion product in the judging. We took several hams every year for eight years running, sometimes bone-in, sometimes boneless, and had one finish in the championship class every year.”
For his wife’s 30th birthday, he took her to Europe on a skiing trip and was enthralled by the artisan cheeses. Nine years later after a busy deer-processing season, he took his family for a month to ski and visit cheese plants in the Alps. Once back home, he sought a consultant to help build a state-of-the-art cheese plant. He hooked up with New Zealander cheese guru and judge Neville McNaughton who came to Newtown for a week.
“We made cheese every day. By the end of that week, I knew this was the right thing and we were doing it the right way. We used the right cultures and bought the correct equipment,” Ely says. “I buy milk from other farmers and bring it home in a 10,000-lb. tank and make batches of cheese throughout the summer. It can age from 60 days to a year- and-a-half. That milk transforms from $600 in value to over $7,000 in cheese value.”
The Elys produce four artisanal cheeses. There is an eight-month aged Washington Crossing creamy sweet flavor, that hints of parmigiano; Aldan’s Blessing, a Trappist monk-style cheese in 4-lb. wheels that delights with a savory Alpine taste; and Makefield, a one-year aged Gruyère-style product named for Upper Makefield Township, from where the family traces its Quaker roots, and a farm cheese.
As a result, the Elys changed the business name from Ely Pork Products to Ely Farm Products in 2006. Ely cheeses start at $13.99 a lb.
All in the family
Daughter Elizabeth, 16, cares for 100 chickens and sells natural eggs at the farm and son Luke, 14, salts and sells hides from the nearly 2,000 deer the firm processes each year.
Ely recognizes the life lessons farming and meat processing can teach. When oldest son Aldan, now 17, wanted a four-wheeler five years ago, he showed him how to earn the money. Aldan skinned 1,000 deer at age 12. Luke also makes and sells his own cranberry sauces and has an added sideline with producing soup mixes.
It is Ely’s love of agriculture that stirs him to help others. He has helped operate the Bucks County 4-H Pig Club for the past six years and saw the group grow from six to 70 kids, ranging in age from eight to 17. He has his oldest protégés in the club artery-pumping hams and making products ranging from pork rolls and Canadian bacon to sausages. This teaches them production skills and instills pride in what they are producing. They even get a chance to put their own names on the label for the products they make and take them home.
Something for everyone
Product diversity has put Ely Farm Products on the map, but it is the detail that went into the planning that assures them their farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia will be a destination sought out by those demanding something special for their palates.
Ely operates a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, drop-off for deer processing customers. He claims that most hunters bringing deer to the plant have “stories” to tell that consumed too much time for the staff to hear out.
Hunters can fill out the cutting and processing orders on line or fill out a card with instructions at anytime. The deer-processing area boasts 280 feet of rail and is under finely tuned video surveillance. The all-day, all-night drop-off area has been used for the past 15 years without a problem. When finished products are ready, the Elys call to let hunters know they have two pick-up times available.
Sausage is individually processed so sportsmen get their own meat. Only hot dogs, snack sticks and reconstituted jerky are batch processed. Sportsmen are offered an astounding variety of products that can be custom made, including a 16 percent bacon deer burger with onion and spices, a venison and pork roll, plus sweet and spicy snack and stick items. Slaughter under inspection runs only on Tuesdays.
There are few employees outside the family. Of the dozen time cards in the shop, some are for other relatives who help out during busy times.
Located where land is extremely expensive, the Elys could easily sell out and never need to work again. But that isn’t in their blood, spirit or their faith. Their website elyfarmproducts.com lets customers know they are in tune with the environment. They tout they’ve gone “green” and installed solar panels that produce more than 65 present of the electricity needed for their butcher shop and farm.
The site acknowledges the many state and national awards won for the quality and taste of their dozens of cured meat products, including bolognas, bacons, wursts and sausages, including a variety labeled “Tennessee.”
Catering is also promoted on the website and in signage. For their roasting pigs, the family prepares ready-to-cook versions and rents roasters, as well as offering cooked pigs ready to pick up and will even do complete meal versions they will take to the customer’s site and serve.
It’s a bit of providence that after nearly 250 years the Ely family farm finally entered the meat business. Ely says they found a few old butcher items around the farm but except for some poultry processing done many years ago, commercial meat processing and retailing is relatively new – except for the old-fashioned values.