At Clifty Farm, the Murphey family is staying true to its heritage of slow-curing country hams while meeting today's marketing realities head-on.

The Paris, TN,-based company sells nearly a million country hams per year, cured and smoked much like founder Truman Murphey did when he started the company in 1954.

Truman's son, Dan, has been at the helm at Clifty Farm since the early 1990s. His son, Michael, oversees day-to-day operations, and his son-in-law, Adrian Harrod, heads the sales department. Clifty Farm employs 120 people and has a second plant in Scottsville, KY.

Dan Murphey explains that only 3-4% of the nation's available fresh hams are processed into country hams. Traditional country hams are dry-cured and smoked, as opposed to being injected with brine and cooked like many commercially available hams.

Dan estimates that Clifty Farm is among the nation's top three producers of country ham and the single largest brand.

Clifty Farm buys approximately 18,000-21,000 fresh hams per week from mid-December through the following October, preparing for its peak marketing season from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Fresh hams are mechanically pressed to squeeze out excess moisture, then rubbed by hand with Clifty Farm's secret salt and sugar blend. The hams are stored in salt-filled curing bins in a “winter room” for 55 days, then washed and dried in a “spring room” before being hickory-smoked in the smokehouse rooms the Murpheys designed themselves. The entire curing process takes a minimum of 84 days.

After smoking, each ham hangs for at least 30 days in an aging cooler to enhance flavor before it is shipped or sliced.

Dan Murphey explains how Clifty Farm's slow-cure method mirrors what Tennessee farmers of yesteryear did to cure their own hams. Hogs were killed in the early winter as temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Hams were then stored on back porches or sheds, absorbing the salt cure over the winter without spoiling or freezing. By the time temperatures rose in the spring, the meat was preserved and ready to eat. Curing was a country art and source of family pride, he explains.

Consumer Demands Changing

Back in the 1960s, Clifty Farm sold mostly whole country hams, which Dan says is now a “dying art.” He says today's consumers prefer products that can be prepared and eaten without the perceived fuss of baking or slicing a whole ham.

About 45% of the hams cured by Clifty Farm are sold as sliced products, either bone-in or boneless, for retail or institutional (foodservice) customers.

Without abandoning its slow-curing technique, Clifty Farm has adapted its operations and product line over the years to meet changing consumer demands.

For example, a few years ago, Clifty Farm purchased a machine made in Parma, Italy, that presses cured, boneless hams into uniformly shaped logs. The uniform shape makes it easier to mechanically slice hams into uniform sizes for exact-weight packages. Dan says exact-weight packages are becoming increasingly important as big grocery chains, such as Wal-Mart, have done away with meat-cutting operations.

Clifty Farm also sells boneless ham in portions smaller than 8-oz., whole slices, such as a 3-oz. breakfast-side portion, or a 1-oz. biscuit strip, which are very popular among fast-food chains serving breakfast sandwiches.

By adapting packaging and portions, Clifty Farm has been able to maintain its manufacturing volumes despite a dwindling customer base for its hallmark product, the whole country ham.

Clifty Farm's next goal is to gain new business in the cooked country ham market, competing directly with prosciutto, an imported Italian country ham popular along the United States' East Coast. Clifty's Shaved Country Ham, labeled as “American Prosciutto,” is a fully cooked product ideal for sandwiches and salads.

Clifty Farm is also hoping to expand sales of its frozen, hickory-smoked pulled pork barbecue line sold in 18-oz. packages. Don't get Dan or Adrian started on the differences between “real” barbecue, which must be grilled or cooked over hardwood to meet Department of Agriculture labeling requirements, vs. cooked pork with barbecue sauce.

Until recently, Clifty considered itself a regional brand, but that's changing.

“We are trying to get into some of the warehouses that are national,” says Dan. “We think the cooked country ham has the most potential for deli sections in chains throughout the nation.”

Manufacturing Headaches

Dan says the fresh hams available today are much bigger than ever before due to heavier market weights. That causes some manufacturing headaches.

“When we first started curing country ham, a lot of hams were 14-17 lb. Then they went to 17-20 lb. Today, most are 20-23 lb.,” says Dan. “When we have 20-23-lb. hams, we have to leave them in the salt for two weeks longer, and that causes the (winter) salt room to get out of sync.”

While Murphey has noticed good consistency in terms of leanness and meat quality in incoming fresh hams, he feels the larger hams can impact the customer's view of the quality of his product.

“To get an 8 oz. center slice (with a very large ham), we have to cut a thinner slice which, to me, hurts quality because it dries out quicker when it is being cooked,” says Dan.

Consistency in size is the most important thing in terms of what Clifty Farm is looking for in the pork it buys. “Being consistent — that's what quality is for me,” says Dan.

For additional information about Clifty Farm products, see www.cliftyfarm.com or call 1-800-486-HAMS.