Big Country Business

by Steve Krut
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John F. Martin & Sons solar array and plant complex
The massive John F. Martin & Sons processing complex features a 3,000-unit ground mounted solar array.

It’s easy to see the massive John F. Martin & Sons meat processing complex from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a cross-state roadway that divides the original 55-acre family farm. But what can’t be so readily discerned is how the legacy of a Stevens, Pa., farmer, who in 1930 started delivering fresh produce to the Philadelphia public marketplace, has blossomed into a processing powerhouse.

“We’re still on the family farm,” says third-generation General Manager Bernell Martin. “Yes, we cover eight Mid-Atlantic states with our products and even truck our own products as far west as Wisconsin. But we are still very much a family business that has remained true to its basic values.”

When his grandfather John F. Martin began adding poultry to the inventory of his farmer’s market stands in Philadelphia and throughout the area, beef and pork became a natural next step. Custom slaughter and processing ensued and the original family farm house that still stands near the white barn is dwarfed by the processing complex that surrounds it. Yet it remains at the center of the Martin family dream.

Bernell, Kenton and Jay Martin
Third generation family operators include Bernell (left) and Jay (right), while Kenton (middle) represents the fourth generation involved in the business.

“Today we would call ourselves more of a hybrid processor and distributor,” Bernell explains. “We’ve made hard decisions to give up our deer processing and slaughter, things that were difficult for some in our family and long-time customers to accept. We have moved in a direction that offers us the best chance of being around for generations to come.”

Indeed, the second generation of the Martin farming and meat processing operation took a major step when it began to retail its meat products at a newly opened Hollinger’s Roadside Market. And in 1961, John Martin started a new company with his four sons.

Twenty-two years later, the family opened its own Martin’s Country Market at a mall in nearby Ephrata, a facility that was totally renovated in November 2012.

The apparent shift into retailing also provided the Martin family the opportunity to help market meat and dairy products from other family-owned processing companies throughout Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

This partnering has led them to serve as major distributors for other local companies such as Lebanon bologna from Seltzer’s Bologna and drinks from Turkey Hill Dairies. Partnering and managing can be a slippery slope, a fact not dismissed by Bernell.

“We took great care in determining that our best market plan was to the small Amish and Mennonite stores, those that sold local products, often in bulk quantities,” he confides. “We looked to the small, independent, family- owned and independent grocery stores because they wanted local quality meats. That has served as our base for the past 15 to 20 years.”

While the Martin enterprise today sells to regional grocery chains like Weis Markets and Giant’s, it has partnered with a few thousand smaller accounts to solidify the core of its business.

Expanding production to serve its growing marketplace has meant more changes. While the family still maintains a 600-head herd of Angus cattle, it has spun off the farm as a separate division, preferring to sell the live cattle rather than doing its own slaughter. A separate family division operates a trucking company and another deals in real estate.

Bernell, 41, who went to work with the company after high school, says his training has been “on-the job” in all phases of plant operations. Plant management is shared with another third-generation family member, Jay Martin, who handles purchasing responsibilities, and a fourth-generation member, Kenton Martin, who serves as assistant plant manager.

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