Sauer's Valley View Farms has been direct marketing, indirectly, for years. "We would sell a quarter (of pork) here and a half there," says Chris Sauer. But since becoming a partner in a unique new program called Branding Your Beliefs, their direct sales of pork have tripled.

"Before, people came to us. Now we're out there looking for business and that's what has made the difference," says Chris.

Chris, Heather and Jason Sauer are the team that makes up Sauer's Valley View Farms from Lewiston, MN.

Last year, the Sauers started booth displays at various events and home delivery of their farm-raised, branded pork. They've also been successful in placing their pork products in grocery stores and restaurants.

Marketing Plan "I don't think anyone could expect to build a successful direct marketing program in less than a year," says Chris. "There are so many little things to consider, from designing your logo to some of the legalities you need to take care of."

Legalities such as liability insurance and clearing brand names and logos are important to ensure they're not already in use. The Sauers are also in the process of writing a business plan and forming a Limited Liability Company, although that's not mandatory to the program.

"It took us a full year, but now we present a real professional image when we come to an account," Chris notes.

It was the aggressiveness of a local processor, Lorentz Meats, in Cannon Falls, MN, that got the Sauers involved in the Branding Your Beliefs program.

"Lorentz Meats pushed hard for this because they needed the business. They realized they needed to do something different in order to stay alive," says Chris. "They've done a good job of marketing themselves."

Mike Lorentz and his brother, Rob, own and operate Lorentz Meats. It's a custom processing plant that has been in the family for more than 30 years.

"We felt for our custom processing to survive, we needed to partner with the farmers that were direct marketing. We were growing as a business, but we were taking an increasing share of a decreasing market because more and more farms are going out of business," says Mike Lorentz. "With direct marketing we have nearly a limitless market."

Sauer's Valley View Farms marketing plan partners perfectly with Lorentz Meats. They each produce quality products and have the potential to improve profitability.

Birth Of Branding Branding Your Beliefs began in 1997 with grant money when Lorentz Meats teamed up with Land O'Lakes, the Sustainable Farming Association and the University of Minnesota. The program was designed for producers to market their own products, direct to consumers, using Lorentz's processing facility.

Lorentz can wholesale products anyway their customers want. As a state inspected facility for meat cutting and sausage making, they contract out to area processors who have inspected kill floors.

"We started with humble goals. Now there's more of a challenge to keep up," says Lorentz.

Lorentz's custom processing business has already grown 35% so far this year over last year's total sales. But unfortunately, due to facility limitations, they've had to turn some work away.

Lorentz is currently building a new $1.5 million facility with support from some local investors and area banks.

The new facility will be fully inspected and is set to be operational by the end of this year.

Direct To The Consumer The Sauers' goal is to provide a high-quality product from their farm to the consumer's table.

"It's amazing how many opportunities are out there. People are ready to take us on (as a supplier) as soon as we're ready to go the next step," says Chris.

But they are cautious about taking that next step. "We don't want to grow too fast because we bring a quality product and a quality service, and we don't want to jeopardize (either) by growing too quickly."

The Sauers pride themselves on building a relationship with each customer, whether it's a store owner or a shopper at a farmer's market.

"Our best salesman is word of mouth," says Chris. "You can put all the ads in the newspaper you want, but that isn't going to sell your meat. Somebody needs to try it and be confident that it's a good product before they recommend it.

"That's the challenge we'll have in the grocery stores. If consumers haven't seen our product before, why would they buy our meat label over the next one? We want it to be that eventually consumers go to the meat case and look for our label."

The Sauers plan to conduct in-store demonstrations where they will give out product samples.

Currently, the Sauers best-selling item is their bratwursts, but they anticipate an increase in pork chop sales this summer. They also offer a variety of combination packages.

"We feel we have a quality product, and are confident about going out and marketing it," says Chris.

The Sauers had their products tested at the Sioux-Preme Meat Testing Lab in Sioux Center, IA, and had one of the highest composite scores in the 11/2 years the lab has been open. The testing included nine different areas, including pH, marbling and water holding capacity.

It's a consistent product because it's the same genetics. "You're getting the same pork chop every time because we have a lot tighter grasp on quality control. We know which animal goes into the locker. We don't just open the gate and let anything run in," claims Chris.

The Sauers market about 900 pigs a month, picking the top end to direct market.

The top end are visually selected based on similar size, muscling and leanness. Chris also makes sure all the hogs are sound and not stressed.

The main thing the Sauers stress is direct marketing as an opportunity. But realistically it takes up-front investment, time and money; and it isn't for everybody.

"I think the small producer can do this if he disciplines himself to put time into it. If you look hard enough, there's an opportunity around every corner, you just have to figure out how to get at it," says Chris.

"If we hadn't found other ways to market our product, we wouldn't have survived this hog cycle," he says. "It's what has kept us excited about the hog industry," adds Heather. "The consumer is looking for the face of the farmer; they're looking for us."

In addition to direct marketing pork, Sauer's Valley View Farms also have 60 beef cows, 1,000 acres of cropland, a custom combining business, a grain-drying service and a trucking business.

For more information on Branding Your Beliefs contact Mike Lorentz at (507) 263-3617.