Susan Parrish
The La Grande Observer

COVE — Ezekiel Elmer, 18, used a knife to trim excess fat from a slab of pork that looked nearly as long as he is. His grandfather, Howard Elmer, cut a slab into chops, while Cherie Elmer, Howard’s wife, scraped bone dust from each chop, wrapped them in plastic and added a label: Pigtail Pork. Howard and Cherie have been raising pigs for 40 years. Their family business, which operates on the Elmer ranch on Lower Cove Road, raises about 400 pigs a year.

Along the way, Howard has found the recipe for success: custom orders, personal service and award-winning pork products that loyal customers are willing to drive hundreds, and even thousands of miles, to pick up. Since he started entering Pigtail Pork products in regional competitions in 2006, Elmer has received numerous awards, which line the walls of his butcher shop.

In April, Pigtail Pork’s cured meat garnered the grand champion award at a meat processors competition in Billings, Montana. In March, Elmer’s products received three awards — two champion awards and a grand champion — at the Northwest Meat Processors Association competition in Ocean Shores, Washington. His Italian dry cure sausage was in the running for “best of show” at a recent

“It missed ‘best of show’ by only one point,” said Cherie, her hands busy packaging pork.

“One judge said it was the best dry cure she’d ever had,” Howard added.

He said it takes about 40 days to cure the uncooked sausages in a room in their basement. He can produce the sought-after Italian dry cure sausages only during certain months when conditions are optimal.

“It has to be the right humidity and temperature,” he explained.

Changing with the times

The Elmers started their business by selling live pigs to packers all over the Northwest, but as freight charges increased and pig farmers went out of business, the Elmers had to change their business model.

“Economically, there wasn’t a cheap way to get pigs to the market anymore,” Howard said.

Sage Elmer, their son — and Ezekiel’s father — who lives and works on the farm, suggested if they were going to continue raising pigs, they should start processing and selling their own meat. That has proven to be a good business decision. The family added a slaughterhouse, butcher shop and packing facility.

The Elmers don’t have to advertise. They have a steady stream of repeat customers and new customers through word of mouth. Their business is so successful that Howard said they are about two months behind on their orders.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer