The personal farmer: Hawk Meats turns farm market model on its ear

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EAST ROCHESTER, Ohio — Promoting the quality of a farm’s product, according to Sam Hawk, is every bit as important as the day-to-day production work.

”It is 50 percent personality and 50 percent product,” said Hawk, owner of Hawk Meats. “But no one wants to talk about what they do.”

Hawk, however, has no problem discussing his passion for farming.

For past four years, Hawk Meats has built a profitable business raising no more than 10 head of cattle at a time on seven acres, while contracting with select local farms to raise Hawk Meats’ chickens and hogs.

“I knew that I needed to get 30 people to buy $1,000 worth of meat a year,” he said of his simple business model. “And if I raised the best stuff I possibly could raise, people would pay for quality meat.”

Short retirement

When Hawk retired more than a decade ago from his position as a supervisor at Sugardale Foods, farming was near the bottom of his retirement to-do list.

Hawk’s brother,Ted, a large volume commercial chicken farmer, was the first to float the idea to him in 2003.

“He said ‘you always raised good animals and I have a bunch of chicks that didn’t get too big,’ so he dropped off 200 chicks,” Hawk said. “I had started raising few cattle, but I always hated chickens.”

In spite of his distaste, Hawk managed to sell all 200 birds.

“I just asked around,” he said of his marketing approach. “At games or whatever, I’d ask people, ‘hey, do you want to buy a chicken?’”

Spreading his wings

Following the unexpected success of his poultry experiment, Hawk officially hung out his shingle.

Hawk Meats advertised its minimally processed, free-range beef, chicken and pork at $7 to $8 a pound, deviating slightly for items like chicken wings at $4 a pound and whole chickens for $3 a pound.

“I told all my customers ‘I will buy it and feed it and you will pay 100 percent of my costs,’” he said.

Some, including his wife and business partner, Cindy, said there was no way the market would bear what Hawk was charging.

Growing pains

A number of the company’s first customers felt the same way.

“I had a guy tell me ‘I want to buy the biggest chicken you have’,” Hawk said. “I was charging $3 a pound and biggest one was 8 and a half pounds. He said ‘I’m not going to pay $26 for a chicken’ and I told him that’ if this is not the best-tasting chicken you ever tasted, bring me back the label I’ll give you your money back.’

“He came back in three weeks and got ground beef for $8 a pound. And for four years I’ve had no labels come back.”

Soon, Hawk said, beef orders were being taken before the calves had even been purchased.

Most customers order directly, by the quarter or half, but he also sets up at to the North Canton farmers market from June to October.

He said the farmers market is a crucial segment of the Hawk Meats’ business. “We can do $2,000 worth of business in four hours.”

Local network

Trust, between both vendor and customers, remains the most important business ingredient, Hawk said.

The company has established close business relationships with Columbiana County-area farmers and companies such as Witmer’s Feed and Grain and Kiko Meats, and Hawk’s calves are “all born and raised between Homeworth and Minerva.”

“I think the real reason people don’t want to pay more than $4 pound has to do with how they are treated as a customer. Some people tell me I care more about their food than they do.”

Boutique beef

Paula McGee, of Massillon, is one of those people.

”When I first met him, before I’d even bought any meat from him, I liked his (farmers market) display and his knowledge,” McGee said of Hawk. “I had a lot of questions about how he raised the cattle and (Hawk Farms) was what I’d been looking for.”

After her first small purchase, McGee said she realized she had found “the best hamburger I’d ever tasted.”

“A lot of people don’t want to pay more, and neither do I, but it’s important to me what is going into it,” McGee said. “I’m not a big meat eater, but I like to know where it is coming from.

“He is very open and has invited us out to the farm several times. I don’t think there are a lot of places that would do that.”

New philosophy

Hawk estimates he works 65 hours a year and nets around $18,000 in annual sales.

Still, Hawk said he worries about the future of a business like his. While compelling on paper, he said, it is still farming and therefore not for the impatient or faint of heart.

“Only 3 percent of population are farmers and it’s all on a grand scale, but I think 5,000 people could do what I do,” Hawk said.

“And I’m retired. When something happens to me, my customers are going to have to do without.”

For the time begin though, Hawk’s personality-first approach remains.

“That is why I am doing it — my relationship with my customers,” he said. “And if you are willing to pay for it, I am willing to raise it.”

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Brian Lisik lives in Canton, Ohio. A Suburban Newspapers of America and Ohio Newspaper Association award winner for column writing and series writing.

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