Brad Freking is a product of trying times. That may be hard to believe as one looks at New Fashion Pork as it stands today, 22 years after he; his wife, Meg; and his sisters started the pork production company.
Based in Jackson, Minn., NFP began in 1994 when Brad decided to return to the home farm after completing his veterinary degree at the University of Minnesota. While still in veterinary school, Brad had told his parents, Carroll and Carolyn, that when he got done with school he wanted to come home and raise pigs. His parents had been on the verge of selling the sow herd, but with the news of their only son desiring to return to the farm, they decided to hold onto the sows.
Brad had made his intentions known in 1991, and three years later, being true to his word, came home and purchased his first 1,000 head of weaned pigs from Canada. In the beginning, NFP was a wean-to-finish operation of Brad, Linette and Susan — there’s uncertainty as to who the true “first” employee was. “Linette was our first employee,” Brad says, only to correct himself later. “Maybe Susan was the first employee.”
Regardless of who came first, NFP began and remains a family-run operation that now employs 450 people, markets 1.4 million hogs annually and owns nearly 60,000 sows in seven states. Their commitment to the swine industry and progressive development qualifies New Fashion Pork as one of this year’s Masters of the Pork Industry.
Both Brad and wife Meg are products of traditional Jackson County farm families. The Freking farm raised 600 acres of crops, 200 sows farrow-to-finish and had a few stock cows. “We had open-pen gestation, and we pitched a lot of manure,” he says.
Brad grew up near Sioux Valley, and Meg was a Jackson gal, and her dad had cattle. They met in high school through 4-H, and they competed on the county livestock judging team together. Meg graduated from high school in 1985, Brad in 1986, “and you know those times. There unfortunately weren’t opportunities at home, so in all honesty as a senior [in high school] there were two options — go to the Air Force or go to college,” Brad says.
He decided on the college route, and headed west to Brookings to work on his pre-vet degree at South Dakota State University. Meg went to St. Cloud (Minn.) State University for one year before transferring to SDSU to major in ag business.
“You look back at that time and it was like, well, what are you going to go to school for,” Meg says. “All we knew was agriculture. Our parents were like ‘you have to go do something else.’ It was tough. … I think by the time the ’90s came around and when Brad got into vet school, we started to think that maybe we could get back into the agriculture world.”
Though it was tough, Brad says there were good and bad facets about growing up and going to college through those lean years. “Truthfully that drove me to a hard-work ethic, because no one was going to give you anything. It wasn’t because our parents didn’t want to; they couldn’t.”
“My parents never complained, but you could sense it was tough,” Meg says.
Those tough times went a long way in establishing the core of what the Frekings and NFP are all about, “You learn from having to do without,” Brad says. “Whatever you’re going to establish is up to you.”
Upon graduating from SDSU, Brad attended veterinary school at the University of Minnesota where he became immersed in a rich learning environment, surrounded by some of the brightest graduate and doctorate students, not to mention the faculty and professors who either have been or still are leaders in the industry — Dale Paulson, Peter Davies, Barry Wiseman, Bill Christensen, Mark Weaver, Gary Dial, Bob Morrison, Carlos Pijoan. “This was an extremely robust, learning environment from production, health, financial and by having to work with and working for those guys, you got exposed to just a plethora of different information,” Brad says.
Learning in such a rich environment at the University of Minnesota, as well as his ride-alongs with practicing veterinarians, Brad thought he was destined to be a swine consultant. The summer of 1991 took Brad across the country interning with seven different veterinarians, and in the summer of ’92 he was lined up with the large operations at the time — Murphys, Browns of Carolina, Premium Standard Foods, Swine Graphics and even into Chile.
That experience changed his perspective, “saying this industry is changing, it’s not going to be 200 sows farrow-to-finish. So if I’m going to be a part of that sector, I’m going to need to understand that.”
Freking had a revelation as he was watching the swine sector evolve in front of him. “What was happening was not a lot of magic,” he says. “Yes, you need capital backing, but at the end of the day, it’s a people game. Production will drive profit.” Seeing what the others at the time were doing paved the path for what Freking could see, and for what would become New Fashion Pork.
An opportunity arose his senior year of veterinary school from Mike Wilson who had weaned pigs in Ontario “with higher feed costs and poorer markets. He wanted to bring those to the Midwest with cheaper feed and better markets.”
Brad drove Wilson around to potential partners in the United States to garner interest. “No one had really transported weaned pigs before,” Meg recalls.
After a week of chauffeuring Wilson around without gathering much interest from potential partners, Brad remembers asking him “Why don’t we start a business together?” NFP was born.
Mike Wilson, Gary Dial and Brad started NFP in 1994. Brad had spent his senior year of veterinary school working on the business model and financials.
With the 1,000 weaned pigs coming from Canada weekly, the Frekings added another 250 weekly coming out of the home farm that had been converted to a 600-sow farrow-to-wean setup. New Fashion Pork was producing 55,000 to 60,000 pigs annually.
While in veterinary school, Brad worked on the modified early weaning project at the U of M, and now with 20/20 hindsight, he sees that project did a disservice to the industry. “We gave the industry the perception that this could be done on a broad spectrum and that you could commingle pigs, and we gave them the perception that the younger you wean them the better. … It did teach people how to eradicate diseases out of existing farms, these are the processes.”
Coming off that project, he assumed he could translate the findings to the newly created NFP. “I figured that I could commingle pigs off these four sow farms,” he says. “Uh, no. Needless to say, our first couple of years of biological performance was not that good, and needless to say, the first batch of pigs that we sold was in the fall of ’94, the first downturn in the industry, so we were your classical boot-strap startup. I thought I knew a lot about raising pigs, but I didn’t know [anything].”
NFP survived that and began to grow, reaching about 2,500 pigs per week, “and then ’98 happened,” Brad says. Though the 1998 down cycle in the swine industry hit many hard, Brad says NFP was sitting in decent shape since the organization had no debt.
Late-December of 1998, Brad received a fax about a Wyoming sow farm that was going to be liquidated on Jan. 1, “and that we could get it cheap.” Brad traveled west the day after Christmas, and bought that herd of 8,000 sows, the first sows NFP owned aside from the home farm. “We bought them at cull sow price. I figured I needed the weaned pigs, because I was buying weaned pigs. Figured I could get a couple years out of the sows.”
A series of acquisitions of hog facilities and feed mills across the Midwest over the following 10 years expanded NFP’s footprint to Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota and Wisconsin, in addition to Wyoming and Minnesota. A lot of the farms were in the 1,200 farrow-to-wean or farrow-to-feeder size, and over time they were all converted to the current NFP model of 6,000 sows farrow-to-wean. “It’s a great model; it really works well,” Brad says. At the birth of NFP in 1994, 2,500-sow farms were big operations. As mentioned before, the Wyoming sow farm was 8,000, and the South Dakota farm was “a true 6,000-sow farm,” he says. “As I kept looking at our flow-based financials, compared to the home place, which was smaller, you saw the efficiencies in those larger farms. Six thousand is a model that flowed well, especially in 1,000-pig increments, because all of our finishing is 1,000-head units.”
Sometimes outlying factors impede efficiency, and Brad says the Wyoming sow farms have remained at the 8,000-sow level, due to the difficulty of the permitting process. So, rather than convert down to the 6,000-sow model, “we built a system that flows well to generate 3,800 head a week.”
Between 1998 and 2004, NFP grew to about 52,000 sows.
All finishing pigs are trucked back to within 120 miles of Jackson, closer proximity to the feed mills. The main feed mill is in Estherville, Iowa, another in Worthington, Minn., one in Jewell, Iowa, and another in Switz City, Ind. About 85% to 90% of NFP-fed feed is milled internally, with the balance outsourced to certain sow farms due to geographic logistics.
Not wanting a repeat of the 1980s, or 1998 for that matter, Brad and Meg decided to protect themselves for the future. About the same time Brad and Meg were wrapping up acquisition mode in 2004, they decided to join forces with four other like-minded producers to start Triumph Foods, a pork harvest and processing facility in St. Joseph, Mo. That plant began operations in 2006, and now employs 2,800 employees and processes over 6 million hogs annually, and supplies pork products to 30 countries in addition to the United States.
About two and a half years ago, Triumph bought 50% into Daily’s Premium Meats, also in St. Joseph. For many years Daily’s has been known as “The Bacon Specialists.”
Triumph Foods latest venture into the pork processing world has created quite the buzz in the swine industry, as the joint venture of Seaboard Triumph Foods LLC is taking shape in Sioux City, Iowa. STF is set to open in July with plans to process 6 million pigs per year once the second shift is operational in 2018.
Wanting to completely integrate the NFP production system, in 2010 Brad and Meg started BWT Holdings LLP, an acronym for the couple’s three sons — Benjamin, William and Thomas. BWT is made up of 15,000 acres of land that is utilized by raising crops that go back into feed for the pigs, and the manure from the hog barns goes back into the soil, limiting the need for commercial fertilizer.
NFP has taken diversification to a whole other level, not to mention to a different country. Adding to the corn and soybeans raised in the Midwest, NFP has been growing sugarcane and corn (both for human consumption) on about 13,000 acres in Belize.
While NFP has diversified into land holdings, pork processing and now sugarcane, Freking admits that NFP’s “core is an integrated pork production business, and the team here is committed to that core.”
Jim Rasmussen, NFP chief financial officer since February 2015, says NFP will “stay true to our roots, pigs are still the core. Brad makes sure of that.”
Answering the consumer call for antibiotic-free pork, NFP recently branched out to give them what they want by starting Old Fashion Pork. In March the first pigs were weaned from the Global Animal Partnership 1-certified 1,400-sow barn near Thorp, Wis.
OFP pigs will be raised without antibiotics and provided bedding. Tails will not be docked and high space requirements will be maintained for each pig on the farm. The barn features gestation pens, free-access breeding stalls, Nedap feed training systems and turnaround farrowing pens. OFP pigs will be processed at the St. Joseph, Mo., plant first thing on Monday mornings to avoid the blending of non-GAP1 pork product.
As a side note, though the OFP pigs will receive no antibiotics, the team over at NFP has done a good job of keeping antibiotic use to a minimum. Three years ago Brad and Deborah Murray, NFP Veterinary Services manager, sat down to strategize how NFP would handle the impending expanding veterinary feed directives that went into effect Jan. 1.
“We sat down, and we got on the path ‘How are we going to reduce antibiotic usage as a company with the goal of eliminating feed-grade antibiotics?’ And we started that process. Deb was concerned about writing scripts,” Brad says. They went through flow-by-flow company-wide, and now for the past year the company has not used feed-grade antibiotics “unless we absolutely have to if we have a disease break.”
After thorough study of NFP’s pig flow, they found they were using 17 milligrams of antibiotics per kilogram of pork produced, “so 50% of our pigs raised post-weaning go through our system without antibiotics in the feed or water. … Now, are we extremely judicious about the responsibility of treating individual pigs? Absolutely.”
Setting an example
Brad may be the owner and chief executive officer, but he leads by example, and looks for good people who can do the same.
“I have done every job in this company,” he says, “so I can relate to what everyone is doing.”
Brad’s leadership style is molded from what he has seen missing in other leadership models. “You see a lot of managers give people responsibility, but not the authority to take action,” he says. “My job is to remove the barriers so that they can do their jobs. … I don’t call meetings. If I do, it’s to explain something or to make a company announcement.” He prefers to have working groups of two to four people to tackle issues at-hand.
An open-door policy is instilled in the NFP HQ just off Interstate 90, and with that comes transparency. “I found it refreshing that Brad shares the financial records with employees,” says Vince Baack, NFP chief business officer since October 2006.
Company transparency trickles down to the farms under the NFP umbrella. “Every sow farm manager and grow-finish manager sees a monthly P/L [profit and loss] report,” Brad says. “It helps to give them a global picture.” He says the managers’ understanding of such reports helps them in knowing where improvements can be made. “They see line items on the report that they have no control over, but they also see the costs that they can control.”
Rasmussen likes the culture NFP presents. “This is a unique culture of high expectations, but high cooperation. … direction is given, but there is not micromanagement,” he says. “We can’t be perfect, but we strive to be the best that we can.”
This culture appealed so much that Rasmussen decided to come back to the company that he left in 2006. “I’ve got five kids, and this is one of two things that I would have uprooted five kids from Nebraska for.”
Brad and Meg Freking are believers in giving back to the communities around them, and NFP has its own Community Pride Team. This team raises funds at local county fairs, summer golf outings and other community events. All NFP employees are welcomed and encouraged to be a Community Pride Team member, and get involved in activities and organizations such as Adopt-A-Child for Christmas, Coats for Kids, Jackson County Food 4 Kids (feeding 160 food-insecure K-fifth-graders weekly), Kids Day-Jackson County Fair, Tri for Health, Pork Chop Open, Franks-A-Lot Family Night and numerous grilling events. Meg says the Community Pride Team “has taken a lot of pride in their work.”
“We have been blessed, so it’s time to give back,” Brad says.