KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As summer approaches, the local farmers and ranchers in my area are just about done burning their dead tree branches and brush plus open prairies—an annual, month-long ritual in these parts. While driving down winding, two-lane country roads, the wonderful aroma of burning wood plus white plumes of smoke swirl in and out of the car both day and night during this time period.

Certain aromas take me back in time — particularly the smell of burning hickory. While I was in grade school in south suburban Chicago, my aunt and uncle had a small farm several hours southeast in Winfield, Ind., which is located about 10 miles east of Crown Point. Theirs was one of just several homes or small farms that were dotted along a rolling, five-mile stretch of country road covered by stone. They raised chickens and grew corn and other vegetables — mostly for the fun of it as my uncle was a long-haul truck driver. My aunt pretty much raised my five cousins single-handedly plus tended to most of the farm chores along with my older cousins. Of course, the eggs and chickens they raised came in handy for their family. From what I remember, my aunt — who is now 96 years young — was very adept at humanely slaughtering and frying chicken at the drop of a hat back in those days.

Their several acres of farmland were out in the middle of nowhere and on the edge of a small-but-dense wooded area. My favorite part of visiting them was we would sometimes roast hot dogs and marshmallows over a hickory fire after dark next to their small corn field. Earlier during the day, my cousins and I would gather hickory bark and twigs in the woods for the evening’s fire. There was nothing like the smell of hot dogs or marshmallows on a hickory stick roasting over an open hickory fire. I also loved the crackling and popping of the burning hickory embers as they glowed in the pitch dark.

Much has changed since then. They no longer live in Winfield and three in the family have since passed away, but the memories of those happy days are kept alive whenever I visit a meat and poultry plant that smokes products.

I always get a kick out of the pride plant managers have when showing-off their smokehouse operations. And they should be proud. Effectively smoking meat is not an easy process and a well-run, in-plant smokehouse operation is a “must” to ensure consistent consumer and customer satisfaction of smoked products.

Dakota Provisions, Huron, SD, processes bone-in and boneless turkey products, ground turkey, mechanically deboned turkey, pre-mixed meat slurries, whole muscle (turkey breast and turkey breast shavings, boneless pork hams, natural roast beef), and formed chicken, turkey, beef and pork products and deli slicing logs. Its plant employs natural wood smoke and liquid smoke on some of these products.

“Liquid smoke is used on our deli lobes/loafs after they are cooked in a bag,” says Chet Coolbaugh, vice president of operations. “Natural smoke is used on bacon, a common method in the industry.”

The plant processes approximately 35 million lbs. of products per year — of these, approximately 19 percent are smoked via liquid smoke and 1 percent by natural smoke. “We operate two smokehouses with capacities at 4 million lbs. per year,” he adds. “We achieve a consistent, nice, even smoke color with even heat and air flow. We are able to add wood chips to our smoke generators without having to wet them.”

When it comes to maintaining smokehouses, Coolbaugh says, “The top priority is keeping the pipes and ovens clean. This ensures that the ovens can maintain even smoke distribution and color as well as consistent temperatures.”

When I observe a plant’s smoking operation in the future, my mind will quickly travel back to the rolling landscape of Winfield, Ind. and the dark, summer nights of roasting hotdogs over a glowing hickory fire. I hope those happy memories will continue to emerge at every smoking operation I observe down the road.

For more information on maintaining smokehouses, read about it exclusively in the June issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.