Alaska’s food “heroes”
Aug. 6, 2014
|Delta Meat & Sausage Co. is a tourist attraction for visitors traveling the Alaska Highway and a much-needed provider of custom processing services for area farmers and hunters.
The signage in front of Delta Meat & Sausage Company in Delta Junction, Alaska, lures plenty of tourists with offerings such as reindeer, buffalo, elk and even yak sausages and snack sticks. But to the locals, the folks who run this 17-year-old custom meat and processing company have become their food “heroes.”
“Farming in Alaska is definitely a challenge” says co-owner Jeannie Pinkelman. “It is not always easy to raise enough feed for livestock and to be able to provide a stable food supply.”
The first realization of the difficulties that the 49th state portends for those in the food business came to the founders of this family owned business in 1967 when former rancher and farmer Doug McCollum had an itch to see the vast wilderness. He was invited by a friend from Montana to visit his homestead in Delta Junction. Doug, from Utica, Mont., was so impressed that he brought his family to Alaska, and shortly after arriving, purchased a 320-acre parcel from the state in an area called the Clearwater.
He and then-business partner, Al Wilson, purchased an old concrete batch plant from Al Remington, the Montana transplant who originally invited him to see Alaska. For 35 years, Doug and wife, Cathie, operated the business and sold it in 2004 when development of a missile defense base sent the local economy skyrocketing.
The McCollums contemplated getting back into agriculture, but the harsh climate prompted them to do some serious preliminary research. They found a Scottish breed of cattle called Galloway that could thrive in such an environment. In 1984, they purchased a Galloway bull and 17 heifers, which today has expanded to become a herd of nearly 500 Galloway/Angus crossbreds.
In the first few years of raising the new herd, the McCollums learned that Alaskan soils were deficient in minerals. The problems they experienced in calving were solved by providing a special selenium-blended salt and with the proper use of fertilizers they were able to grow better forage. The experiment worked and they expanded the herd.
|Cathie McCollum (left) and her daughter, Jeannie Pinkelman are proud to manage Delta Meat & Sausage Company, one of Alaska's most popular meat businesses.
They had also been keeping an eye on a vacant John Deere implement building. Son-in-law Russ Pinkelman, another farmer-implant from St. James, Neb., with a background in construction, remodeled the plant in order for it to be approved for the facility to become a state-certified locker plant. In 1997, they opened the doors to a facility that could not only handle the cattle they raised, but provide a location for area farmers to bring their own animals in for custom processing.
Alaska reigns as one of the world’s premier hunting areas. The need for a local game and sausage processor for the hunters was all too apparent and a perfect fit for their plans.
Doug and son-in-law, Russ, along with two hired hands take care of the Northwest Land & Livestock farm while wife, Cathie, and daughter, Jeannie, manage Delta Meat & Sausage with their crew. One entity doesn’t exist without the other. They go hand-in-hand.
Food “heroes” is a term that was coined by the Farm to School Lunch Program for farmers who participate in providing fresh Alaska-grown foods to the school-lunch programs. The family raises and promotes grass-fed, naturally raised, local beef, free of steroids and feed additives and about 400 hogs as a small part of maintaining a sustainable food supply.
“In 1999, the State of Alaska gave up its meat-inspection program, which was a real blow to our fledgling business,” Jeannie laments. “But we were able to come under federal inspection and things expanded greatly after that. We are proud of the state agricultural motto of ‘Fresher by Far’. Farming is not just what we do but it’s something we believe in with our hearts.”
There is something very old-fashioned about this family’s success and core work ethic, “Like many small businesses, it requires lots of hours and hard work in addition to having good help,” Jeannie says. “There are 10 of us between the farm and the packing plant and we treat our help like family. We wouldn’t be here without them. In our busiest season, which runs from August through December, we add a few more employees.”
‘Know-how’ fuels success
So, how do you go from a former John Deere implement building into a flourishing full-scale meat processing company? It’s partially explained on the company website www.deltameat.com, but the Delta Meat & Sausage folks weren’t shy about reaching out and getting resources for help.
“We were able to find an experienced meat-cutter 17 years ago, who owned his own packing plant in Oregon, to show us the ropes, and he still comes in and helps us through game season,” Jeannie relates. “That was huge for us. We were also able to locate a sausage-maker from Kenny Lake, Alaska, who traveled 150 miles, each way, to work here four days a week. His experience was invaluable.
“When HACCP came about, we contacted the late Dr. Dennis Buege from the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison for advice on dry aging beef,” she adds. “He was enthusiastic about what we were doing. He and Dr. Jay Wenther at the American Association of Meat Processors [who is now with Handtmann Inc.] guided us in implementing HACCP plans and other USDA compliance issues we were new to dealing with.”
|"Farming in Alaska is definitely a challenge. It's not always easy to raise enough feed for livestock and to be able to provide a stable food supply." – Jeannie Pinkelman, co-owner, Delta Meat & Sausage Co.
Today, Delta Meat is in a community of 3,200 and offers some of the best-quality smoked hams, bacons and sausages. Their expanded market area reaches hundreds of Alaskan miles as customers bring in their animals for processing. For a modest charge, they will also deliver orders to the airport.
Sportsmen are attracted to the firm by the company display at the three-day outdoor trade show held in Fairbanks, attended by 7,500 hunters, outfitters and related suppliers and customers. A snack tray is set out with samples of types of sausages they can make with their game meats.
In the summer, the parking lot gets filled with RV’s. It’s a virtual tourist destination unto itself, a “must” stop for those traveling the Alaska Highway who want to sample the exotic game sausage. And no matter how exotic the product they try, the quality is always first-class.
When asked where you go after the present success, Jeannie has no qualms about keeping a vigil on the family dream of being the best:
“We depend on feeding families, they purchase our sides of beef and pork - families are first and foremost,” she says. “Without them believing in us, we wouldn’t be here today. Our smoked products can be picked up at a handful of locations in the interior of Alaska. We are just a very small processing plant and the demand for those products keeps us busy.”
When questioned about how difficult it is to be a woman in a male dominated business in a very tough environment, Jeannie explains, “My dad had a dream of raising cows in Alaska that wasn’t an easy challenge, nor was building a USDA packing plant,” she says. “I have a great support network to help make this dream come true. There are challenging days, but when you realize how blessed we are to raise livestock and control our market, we are making our own destiny. It can either make you or break you. We do our best and are thankful that people appreciate what we do and in return they support us by buying our products.”
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.