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Circle Four Farms series: Pig Place

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Originally published Sunday, Sep. 13, 1998

First in a series

Pigs eat. Pigs excrete. Pigs become bacon.

That's about all the average person knows - or wants to know - about the animal ingredient in his BLT sandwich.

But a growing number of southern Utah residents are learning that production of "the other white meat" is big business. It can bring jobs and economic development to a struggling rural area. At the same time, it can raise con cerns about pollution and the death of the family farm.

Circle Four Farms started building its enormous pork production operation near the Beaver County towns of Milford and Minersville in November 1993. The first hogs arrived on Mother's Day 1994.

By the end of 1998, the farms will be home to about 42,000 sows and their offspring, or more than 250,000 hogs.

Larry Sower remembers when the efforts to bring the pig plant to Utah began. He was on Milford's City Council in the early 1990s, and the county's residents were struggling.

Small farmers were having trouble making ends meet; railroad and mining jobs were disappearing.

Sower said he and other council members put together a feasibility study in hopes of attracting a poultry operation to the area. Then Sower read an article about Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., one of the nation's largest pork producers.

The story talked about Smithfield's desire to build hog farms outside of Virginia and North Carolina, Sower said, and he thought southern Utah's arid climate made it a perfect location.

Sower contacted Smithfield, and local officials made a recruiting trip to Virginia and North Carolina in March 1992.

A few public hearings later, Smithfield and three North Carolina companies - Carroll's Foods, Murphy Family Farms and Prestage Farms - decided to join together in a Western venture. They started building a series of farms on their 45,000 acres of Utah land that could eventually produce up to 2.5 million hogs each year.

They're still building but not without growing pains.

"It was a major change for the both the people and the economy down here in Beaver County," Sower said. "Any large change is difficult at times."

Circle Four General Manager D. Steven Pollmann said the company itself has changed during the last five years.

Smithfield bought Murphy's part of Circle Four in July and now owns a 74 percent interest in the farm. Pollmann said Carroll's owns most of the rest of Circle Four, with Prestage maintaining a small interest.

The ownership change has improved the speed and efficiency of the company's decisionmaking, Pollmann said, and it is helping Circle Four move ahead with expansion.

Pollmann, who was raised on a central Utah pig farm and graduated from Utah State University, spent five years on the Kansas State University faculty and 14 years in the feed industry before joining Circle Four about a year ago.

He said he is glad to be back in Utah and ready to shepherd the company through construction of its second hog complex, or "pyramid."

Each pyramid, which requires about 8,000 acres of land, is a closed community for pigs, Pollmann said.

They are conceived by artificial insemination and born at the sow farms. The pigs are weaned when they are about 21 days old, then spend about seven weeks in nurseries that hold 11,000 pigs each. A 20-week stint in finishing houses brings them up to market weight.

Pollmann said the average hog will eat 600 pounds of feed by the time it is ready for market, so Circle Four built a feed mill in Milford that can produce 40 tons of feed each hour and runs 24 hours per day.

About 10,000 hogs reach market weight each week and make the 550-mile trip by truck to Clougherty Packing, which operates under the name Farmer John, in Vernon, Calif.

"What we're really trying to do is produce a more consistent product for the consumer . . .," Pollmann said. "All the farms are managed the same way using standard operating procedures."

Circle Four's "Skyline Pyramid" is home to 32,000 sows and is contained entirely within Beaver County, which has a human population of about 4,800. Milford's population is about 1,600.

The new "Blue Mountain Pyramid" is under construction in Beaver and Iron counties, Pollmann said, and it should house 10,000 more sows by the end of the year. When finished, it will add 70,000 total hogs to the company's inventory.

At that point, he said, Circle Four will be one of the largest pork producers in the western United States. The company ranked 18th on a 1997 Successful Farming magazine survey of the nation's biggest producers.

Pollmann said Circle Four officials hoped the operation would be larger by now. But an increase in U.S. pork production - about 100 million hogs may go to slaughter this year, compared to the usual 90 to 94 million - has caused a corresponding decrease in prices.

Since Circle Four's primary markets are the West Coast and the Pacific Rim, the Asian economic crisis also is hurting demand for its products.

Smithfield Foods reported a loss for the quarter ended Aug. 2 of $5.3 million, or 14 cents per share. A company press release cited low profitability in hog production operations as part of the reason for the loss.

"Our original projections were to be profitable in the fourth year, but . . . we're not profitable yet," Pollmann said. "We are positioned that we can compete."

He said Circle Four has invested about $135 million in its Utah project, but future growth will depend on the operation's financial success.

Circle Four initially planned to develop facilities for 120,000 sows in Utah, and it still has that goal. If it had that many animals, the farm would rank among the top three pork producers in the nation.

"A logical growth plan is about 10,000 sows per year," Pollmann said.

He said pork prices are higher in California than elsewhere in the United States, so he remains confident that the company will start making a profit in the third quarter of this year.

"Smithfield is thinking long-term," Pollmann said. "They're out here because they think we can be successful. Our destiny is in our hands."