For farmers in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley, there’s a swell of pride in knowing that one of their own has gone on to national acclaim ..... and in the process has helped sustain their rural way of life.

That’s a critical part of the tradition of Haen Meat Packing, the Kaukauna, Wis.-based, full-service processing operation founded in 1959 by farmer, livestock hauler and butcher Leo Haen. He wanted to add a butcher facility to his operation and asked his brother Jack if he would run it after he built one. Jack was more than eager to take on the challenge.

A simple truth is that farmers could not survive without a market for their livestock and large packers are not geared to handle the livestock for farmers who want to sell directly to the consumers, a farm-to-table approach. Hauling those animals great distances costs the farmers money and they don’t always know the price they’ll receive once they ship.

The custom slaughter and processing house has long been a major component in the continued viability of the family farm and while vast numbers of these operations have disappeared across rural America, plants like Haen Meat Packing remain a beacon of comfort for those who produce and raise livestock.

“By just doing what we do well, we keep going forward and growing,” explains Tim Haen, secretary-treasurer and chief sausage-maker for the operation.

Tim’s father, Jack, learned the butchering trade by helping his father as a child, and working in a local butcher shop as a young man. Jack helped his brother, Leo, run the business located on the family farm. In 1975, he and his wife, Patricia, bought the business. Armed with great on-the-job training and a growing family, Jack expanded the plant several times during his tenure. He died in 1996 and passed the torch to the next generation.

Today, Tim, along with brothers Tom, Dan and John run the company, which has grown to 43 full- and part-time employees.

“We have a very loyal and dedicated work force,” Tim emphasizes. “There is very little turnover and some of our workers have been here for more than 20 years.

“What is especially rewarding is that our employees know what we’re trying to do, believe in it and push hard to make this concept of high quality and above-average standards work.”

Earning accolades

The Haen family years ago moved beyond slaughter and processing and has become famous for its award-winning cured and further processed meats. What began as an effort to see how their products stacked up against those made by similar family businesses, the Haens entered the cured meats competition operated annually by the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP).

After seeing where they were coming up short, the family invested in new equipment and relied heavily on advice from their equipment and ingredient suppliers and fellow WAMP members. There were a few of the family’s German recipes that also proved popular.

“Still, it was largely a lot of trial and error,” Tim admits.

Apparently, the error ratio wound down and Haen Meat Packing has amassed one of the largest collections of product awards anywhere. An astounding 300 state and national awards and eight best-of-show honors attest to their prowess in the curing arena. Considering that some of those competitions involved more than 900 products entered, taking home the top award is not only a thrill, but it also does wonders for the reputation and growth of the business.

Tim’s brother, Dan, the oldest, serves as president and is responsible for the custom activities, while John tackles food-safety responsibilities and manages the retail program. Tom oversees wholesale operations and the pizza department, which cranks out about 200, 12-inch frozen pizzas each week. Tim’s son Ben, 22, is involved in meat cutting and in the retail store, and the brothers have other children working part-time in clean-up activities.

The custom element of Haens represents about 20 percent of total volume and also includes a large volume of wild-game processing.

The farm-processing department has seen new growth in the area of the “buy local” approach. Tim says the “buy local” movement is in full bloom in his community, located about 20 miles southwest of Green Bay.

Retail success

The 1,200-sq.-ft. retail area is proving to be a welcomed profit center. A phenomenal array of 87 sausage varieties are offered, including 10 different poultry brats. The Haens are experiencing strong sales in shredded beef, pork and turkey and have seen steady improvement in the ready-to-eat categories.

“We have had increased sales in our ready-to-eat, flavored and microwavable products over the past five years,” Tim comments. “And we sell a lot of chicken sticklers [thigh meat on a stick]. The barbecue area has been very good, along with marinades, particularly flavored chicken breast. We have been investing in equipment and expect continuous upgrades to keep pace with growing product volumes.”

Haen Meat Packing hasn’t delved into catering, but offers five varieties of their store-prepared soups and has a brisk trade in gift boxes and party trays, particularly on Green Bay Packer football weekends. The Haen Meat Packing website (www.haenmeats.com) is well organized and offers viewers free subscriptions to the company newsletters, which feature recipes and information on sales. Not forgetting social media, the company maintains a prominent presence on Facebook.

The 17,000-sq.-ft. processing complex features a modern edifice and state-of-the-art signage. It is operated under state inspection.

But it is clearly the retail area that reigns as the place where championship products are touted. Sparkling display cases, 75 feet of them, gleaming tile floors and an overall décor that lets the displayed meats predominate make it a perfect stage for the company’s wares.

“Our customers are greeted with a smile,” Tim beams. “Everyone who walks through that door is important to us and we want to give them a pleasant and rewarding experience. We know many of our customers by name, but we treat everyone special,” Tim explains. “We will take all the time necessary to help them or explain anything they want more information about. It’s the way we would want to be treated. It’s not idle talk that we want them to be treated just like family.”

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat & Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.