Lone Star bacon

by Joel Crews
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Cody Lane and Neil Dudley
Cody Lane and Neil Dudley lead Pederson’s Natural Farms, which has successfully ridden the bucking bacon boom.

In the little town of Hamilton, Texas, about 130 miles southwest of Dallas, there’s a whole lotta bacon goin’ on. Led by lifelong friends Cody Lane, president, and Neil Dudley, vice president, Pederson’s Natural Farms is producing about 75,000 lbs. of bacon per week, with annual growth in each of the past three years topping 30 percent. Sales in 2014 topped $25 million. The single-shift operation is based in a 50,000-sq.-ft. plant where about 60 employees work on the production line.

Lane grew up on a family ranch before graduating from Texas A&M Univ. in 2001 and joined Pederson’s in its quality assurance department. The next year he was named president and soon thereafter hired his childhood buddy as vice president, knowing the two shared similar work ethics and a desire to succeed. Looking back, Lane muses how “two guys that grew up on a horse now are selling bacon for a living.”

Back then the company’s business wasn’t nearly as focused on bacon and the business was divided equally in thirds – between ham, sausage and bacon. But about 10 years ago, there was a dramatic shift in the product mix. 

Cody Lane, president, Pederson's Natural Farms
Cody Lane, president, Pederson's Natural Farms

“For no particular reason, bacon started to dominate,” Lane says. “Today bacon is 85 percent or maybe more of our business,” mostly for retail customers but also bulk products for foodservice operators.

Especially during the holidays, Pederson’s still processes ham in addition to a variety of sausage products. While it processes mostly pork-based bacon, it has added poultry and beef bacon to the mix on a much smaller scale.

About 40 percent of its processing is done on a private label basis and the remaining portion is under the Pederson’s label. The company is an appealing partner to other brands as a co-packer, not necessarily just based on what it charges.

“There’s probably some cheaper but quality is what will always win,” Lane says.

More recently the company has benefitted from the avalanche of consumers adopting the Paleo diet, which plays into the naturally uncured attributes. Meanwhile, Pederson’s no-sugar bacon, has taken the lead as its top-selling offering.

The company also markets an organic bacon line but its growth, Lane says, is limited by supply. And its naturally cured product claim is no longer a novelty as the practice of using ingredients such as celery powder to provide a cleaner label is widely used. Nowadays, says Lane, uncured bacon is no longer a trend. The company receives skinned and square-cut bellies each day, which also isn’t unlike many other bacon processors, but Pederson’s process is unique.

Pederson's bacon press
Pederson's uses a single Hoegger bacon press.

“We don’t inject our bellies. We vacuum-tumble everything,” which is a four to five hour part of the curing process, followed by four to five hours in one of three smokehouses using natural wood. After curing and smoking, bellies are chilled for about 24 hours before they are pressed, using a single, Hoegger bacon press, the company recently purchased. To keep up with the growing demand, Pederson’s also recently invested in a high-speed slicer, manufactured by Thurne. The equipment is designed for more production as well as other growth opportunities, says Lane.

“We’re still not utilizing the machine to its full capabilities,” he says of the slicer, as far as its ability to grade product using using a visioning system. This technology will pay dividends as the company looks to offer higher-graded products at a premium to its high-end retail customers. “This will provide us options from within the existing product line up and we are excited about that,” he says.

The technology Pederson’s has invested in over the past couple of years has allowed it to increase productivity without increasing labor. Unlike before, a production shift can simultaneously run product for the bulk-foodservice customers while also running retail products.

For the occasional shifts when the non- traditional products are processed, the same production steps are followed except for the step of utilizing a bowl cutter to chop and season the products that will then be stuffed as part of the pressed and formed process.

Pederson's bacon shingles
Pederson's always tries to innovate new bacon flavors using different cuts of pork.

For years, Applewood-smoked bacon has been the company’s biggest seller, but Pederson’s also offers hickory and cherry wood lines of products in addition to a peppered flavor profile and all are available in a variety of thicknesses. More recent innovations have included honey enhanced bacon, jalapeño flavored, barbecue and the no-sugar line.

Some products are comprised of different cuts of pressed and formed pork, including that made from pork butts, Canadian bacon. “We always have to be trying something,” Lane says.

Thurne bacon processor
Pederson's recently invested in a Thurne high-speed bacon slicer.

Non-traditional pork bacon makes up a fragment of the company’s production run during a given day, with most of it able to be produced for the week in the span of a half-day’s production run.

As the company grows, one of the looming opportunities is in the precooked bacon space. “That’s in the works,” Lane says.

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