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Chef Emeril Lagasse Tastes Papa Weaver's Pork

Chef Emeril Lagasse tastes local farmer Tom Weaver's Papa Weaver's Pork sausages at the Quantico Farmers Market. Chef Emeril's favorite sausage flavor was the all natural chorizo. Upon tasting from the grill, Chef Emeril commented. "This is a fine product." The visit was in conjunction with a book signing event. Chef Emeril has hosted over 2,000 Food Network shows and won numerous awards.

Chef Emeril Tasting Papa Weaver's Pork Chef Emeril Tasting Papa Weaver's Pork Chef Emeril Tasting Papa Weaver's Pork

The following article appeared in The Free Lance Star, May 2008:

Sausage biz saves family farm's bacon
Starting Papa Weaver's Pork saved an Orange County farm family's bacon

Date published: 5/25/2008


Tom Weaver transfers corn into a holding tank. It, along with wheat and soybean meal, will be used as feed for his pigs.

Tom and Tina Weaver's Orange County farm might be sprouting houses today if she hadn't felt sorry for her Strayer University classmates 13 years ago.

The students were rushing to the MBA program at Strayer's Fredericksburg campus after work, and had no time for dinner. Tina Weaver was a stay-at-home mom raising two small children and selling Longaberger Baskets at home parties.

"[The students] lived vicariously through what I would make for dinner," Weaver said. "They kept asking me to bring them something to eat."

So, one night, she whipped up some biscuits and filled them with sausage made from the all-natural pigs her husband raises. The class went hog wild for the sausage biscuits, which Tina Weaver had prepared using a recipe handed down by her grandmother.

"They could not get over the taste and quality," she said. "They urged me to start the business because they could not buy anything like this sausage."

The timing was perfect.

Hogs were selling for $20, even though it was costing the Weavers $90 per hog to raise them to market weight. "We could not lose $70 per hog, having 1,200 hogs per year to sell at market," said Tom Weaver, a seventh-generation farmer.

The Weavers knew they'd make more by turning their pigs into specialty products, something they'd discussed doing for years. Soon, Tina Weaver and her classmates were talking in every class about turning her sausages into a business. They even suggested several names for their products, including "Papa Weaver's."

"During my final class, students wanted to visit the farm, see the farming operation and eat pork," she said. "That was our first pig roast."

Getting Papa Weaver's started, however, wasn't easy. The Weavers had to meet cumbersome state and federal regulations for labeling and weights, and drum up financing.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services staff arranged meetings with chain grocery stores, brokers and buyers, but corporate grocery chains weren't interested in small operations with no distributors, Tina Weaver said.

Eventually, the Weavers were able to start selling their sausage at the Fredericksburg Farmers Market at Hurkamp Park as well as local convenience and mom-and-pop grocery stores. Tom Weaver handled production and Tina Weaver did the marketing.

"The children started selling at the farmer's market, so it became a family project," she said.

Hogs at Tom and Tina Weaver's Orange County farm await their morning feeding.

Today, the Weavers sell regular link sausages, ground sausage, hot Italian sausage and a new chorizo, a spicy Mexican sausage, at farmers markets in Orange, Madison and Spotsylvania counties and Forest Lakes in Charlottesville. Capital Meats handles distribution to restaurants.

"We've been using them for about a year and a half now," said Jonathan Hayward, executive chef of Toliver House in Gordonsville and a 1995 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. "It's a great product, and we get a great response from people."

The Weavers also sell pigs and cookers for do-it-yourself pig roasts, or will do the roasting themselves for customers.

Part of the appeal of Papa Weaver's products--which have won a Virginia's Finest designation--is that they're lean and contain no nitrates, preservatives, MSG, additives, chemicals, whey or color.

"Because we produce the hogs for our products, we do not administer any hormones, steroids or growth promotants. Papa Weaver's Pork is clean, all-natural meat," Tina Weaver said.

Tom Weaver raises hogs and turns them into Papa Weaver's sausage products, which are sold at the farmers market on Gordon Road.

"Consumers are looking for this product. They do not want unnatural foods going into their bodies and their children's bodies. Consum-ers also want to know who is raising their food and how," she said.

The Weavers have steadily increased the number of hogs they turn into Papa Weaver's sausages from two per month to 30. They need to more than triple that number to remain profitable, Tom Weaver said, and plan to add a paid sales staff to market their products to more restaurants and food-service accounts.

"If Papa Weaver's Pork had not been started, we would not be farming today," he said. "The growth potential in marketing a direct-farm product is our only avenue to keeping the family farming."

The following is an excerpt from Top Producer, February 1999:

Slim-Line Sausage
The Weavers cater to the fat-conscious crowd

The Papa Weaver FamilyTina Weaver was the antithesis of her MBA night school classmates at Strayer College in Fredericksburg, Va. They worked at the Pentagon; she stayed home with the kids. They pushed papers; her husband, Tom, produced 2,800 pigs a year. They went to class hungry; she brought the dinner.

"I felt sorry for the poor guys," she jokes. "So I fixed them sausage biscuits." And they went hog wild. "They said, 'You've got to make money off these,'" she recalls. Soon after, her sausage became the class project, and Papa Weaver's Pork was born.

Specialty. That was four years ago. Today about 1,000 lbs. a week of the Weavers' lean pork sausage, links and special cuts find their way to gourmet restaurants, schools, farmers' markets and regional and health-food grocery stores in the northern Virginia-Washington D.C. area. About 20% of the family's production flows into the venture. The goal is 100%. With their cheapest ground sausage selling for $2.99/lb.; links at $4.29/lb.; and special cuts up to $9.99/lb. Tina may have found an antidote to the $16 hog.

Dallas Hochman, head of worldwide marketing for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) in Des Moines, Iowa, says niche marketing helps producers extract more dollars from the supply chain. "Especially in low-market situations as we have now, it's a way to add money to the bottom line," he says. Yet fewer than 5% of pork producers brand-market, largely because of stumbling blocks in the marketing chain. Tina Weaver knows all about that.

"We almost got divorced over the label," she quips. Getting it cleared throught USDA took 2 1/2 years and $8,000, all the while holding up their first sale. After that, developing name recognition and gaining a toehold in grocery stores and restaurants was an arduous task. Last summer a distributor finally took them on.

The Weavers cater to the health-concious crowd with a sausage that is free of preservatives, additives, chemicals, hormones and antibiotics and has 12% of the daily value of fat, compared with 30% of the other brands. And there are plenty of other avenues for niche marketers to consider. "Some people can't eat dyes; some can't tolerate nitrites," Tina says. NPPC is helping producers target the Hispanic market, which prefers special cuts and smaller rotisserie pigs.

But the Weavers offer advice to budding entrepreneurs:

  • Have a plan. Tina spent time in school developing business, financial and marketing plans. Don't embark on a value-added venture without these road maps.
  • Make few claims. "Your label will take forever to get approved if you make claims like 'less fat,'" says Tina. And if you compare your product to your competitor's, "you're going to war," she says. She believes the label's nutritional analysis is enough; consumers naturally compare products.
  • Don't expect instant profits. Start-up costs for small ventures like the Weavers' take time to recoup while market acceptance grows. "After two years of planning and two selling, we're breaking even," says Tom, who handles marketing now that Tina teaches full-time.
  • Finally, Know thyself. "You must be creative and innovative," Tina says. "To stay in business, you must be willing to look at the consumer."
  • By Joann Spahr Welsh


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