Visit Circle B Ranch, where heritage breed hogs are humanely raised and slaughtered, and the
Business Spotlight: From Pasture to Plate – Springfield Business Journal
New Jersey natives make a home and a living at their pig farm in the Ozarks
It’s is all about life and death at Circle B Ranch.
The 90-acre hog farm well off the beaten path in rural Seymour breeds over 500 pigs a year and sends to slaughter some 400 for processing.
“There are a few that will be going this weekend,” says co-owner John Backes, walking through one of Circle B’s well-shaded pens. “The way the business goes, you’re either scrambling to get one or you’ve got too many.”
Currently, there are about 300 hogs roaming these rolling Ozarks hills.
A key figure is 275 pounds; that’s the ideal weight before sending swine to the butcher.
The days in between follow the course of Circle B’s business model. Backes and his wife, Marina, insist on raising their hogs naturally and humanely, and they have the certifications to show it: Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane Raised and Handled.
With the help of hired farmhands, the Backeses breed, farrow and raise heritage hogs, which include the Berkshire and Red Wattle breeds.
“We don’t use any chemicals here. We do a lot of weed-whacking,” Marina says in a New Jersey accent she hasn’t shed since moving to the Ozarks in early 2009.
The couple bought the land about 40 miles southeast of Springfield after selling their industrial construction business out east. The last few years have been a crash course for the New Jersey natives, and now John says Circle B is hitting its stride.
“A great advantage in southwest Missouri is the hardwood. You’ve got so many nuts coming down in the fall, they won’t even answer the feed call,” he says, of the potbellied pigs following their rooting and foraging instincts. “One boar we had to go out and find him, he got so fat and happy on acorn. Just ignored us.”
Chefs and butchers are not ignoring Circle B. With roughly 70 clients across eight Missouri markets, Marina says pork sales this year are expected to at least double from $210,000 in 2014. Halfway through the year, she says revenue is up 159 percent, putting $500,000 within striking distance.
“Chefs now call us. They’ve heard from other chefs,” she says.
When the inaugural pork production began in January 2011, the first restaurants to take a chance on Circle B were Farmers Gastropub and Chateau on the Lake in Branson.
Other area pork customers are Metropolitan Farmer restaurant, retailers Homegrown Foods and Tiff’s Market in Marshfield, and the Hickory Hills and Highland Springs country clubs.
“For some reason, we do quite a bit with country clubs,” Marina says, citing the Kansas City market.
Since signing on in November as food vendor for Big Cedar Lodge’s Worman House, Circle B Ranch has expanded service throughout the Table Rock Lake resort. Big Cedar now orders over 200 pounds of pork a week.
“With Big Cedar, sometimes it’s a guessing game as to how much they’re going to need,” John says. “They’ll go through one weekend and use up all their boneless loins, and you’ve got to guess how much they’re going to need if they don’t call.”
The Backeses say a key is getting onto a chef’s menu rotation, citing the $19 pork chops dish at Metropolitan Farmer.
In the St. Louis market, upstart butcher Chris Bolyard handpicked Circle B and Newman Farm in Myrtle for his pork vendors. Before his November launch of Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions in Maplewood, the chef-turned-butcher stepped foot on Circle B’s farm last summer.
“I instantly knew we were going to work with them,” Bolyard says, recalling a farm tour including the wooded areas and mud pits. “It was like a day at the spa for the pigs. They’re given the best life possible out there.”
Today, Bolyard orders about five whole hogs a month from Circle B and supplements with additional shoulders, bellies and pig ears. “It’s primarily chops and shoulder,” the butcher says of his best sellers. “We sell a good amount of pork steaks, too. It’s a St. Louis thing.”
More than pork
Circle B contracts with Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. in Hermann for processing, along with Cloud’s Meats in Carthage.
John says Cloud’s recently developed nitrate-free hot dogs sold under his Big John’s private label. He also sells a barbecue sauce and rub, and Big John’s chop and steak sauce will soon make its introduction at Greater Springfield Farmers’ Market.
Marina’s label includes precooked meatballs, tomato sauce and cranberry chutney. Her sauces have cracked into Whole Foods Market in Kansas City and St. Louis. She says the process wasn’t easy. “Their paperwork is incredible,” Marina says of the Austin-based grocer. “You have to prove your certifications and that you’re FDA-inspected. They want to know origins of everything. Most health food markets could care less.”
Up next is a land expansion. The Backeses recently purchased another 110 acres a mile from their farm, and their farmhands will spend the summer preparing it for hog life.
The $165,000 investment doubles Circle B’s pastureland and enables herd growth of 10-15 percent.
“We’ll use this area primarily as a breeding ground, farrowing ground and have some juveniles and start rotating all the finishing hogs over there,” John says.