By Aaron Putze, APR
If you love great food, you love Lewright Meats.
Located in Eagle Grove, Iowa, the family business traces its rural roots to 1936 when it was founded by H. L. Lewright, Sr.
In its early days, Lewright Meats specialized in custom processing for beef and pork farmers. In 1963, H. L. Jr. joined his father in the business and they further developed their coveted meat-smoking and sausage-making techniques.
Fast-forward to 1981. That’s when son-in-law, Paul Bubeck, joined the company and expanded the company’s retail and wholesale markets using the time-honored and true recipes and techniques established in the 1930s.
Today, Paul and his son Ethan continue to source quality beef and pork from area farmers, prepare it and market it to a growing number of customers – products that include the unique blends of spices and smoking techniques that make them unique, flavorful and the perfect addition to any menu.
They’ve become so popular and gained such a following that you can find them in supermarkets around the state.
More than 80 percent of the pork processed by Lewright is supplied by Stu Swanson who raises pigs and grows corn and soybeans east of Eagle Grove near the small town of Galt.
“We’re about cultivating relationships with farmers,” says Ethan, who graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in criminology, but found his calling as a businessman in an agricultural community. “What sets our quality apart is the farmers we buy from.
“We also have an old way of processing that includes the brick smokehouse and lots and lots of hickory wood.”
Every month, nearly 40 pigs are sourced from the Swanson farm for Lewright’s mouthwatering bacon, ham and chops.
Stu, a graduate of Iowa State University, farms with his father Ron. He and his wife Lori have four children.
“Our family has raised hogs as long as I can remember,” says Stu. “Dad was a pretty good hog man himself – having hogs on the farm was a good way to keep the children interested in farming.”
Stu, who served as a host for the Iowa Food & Family Project’s Expedition Farm Country last fall, returned home to farm in 1992 after working for the Iowa Pork Producers Association in Clive.
“Raising pigs provided a way to complement the farming operation,” says Stu. “I had the knowledge of pigs while dad specialized in row crops. I thought we’d expand the farm by growing the pig operation but the business quickly changed and we had to change, too.”
That meant becoming specialized and raising a specific hog for a specific retailer. In this case, it was Lewright Meats.
“We sold our pigs to several area buying stations while having Paul and Lewright’s do some custom processing for the family,” recalls Stu. “But soon we began talking about working with them in a more significant way. It was a natural fit as Paul knew exactly what I had for quality pork.”
Soon, the two were discussing numbers and how often pigs could be delivered to Eagle Grove for processing under the Lewright Meats label.
“Paul was looking for around 15 head per week. That was everything I had to keep him satisfied and it’s worked ever since.”
Lewright Meats continues to buck the industry trend. At one time, every community had a meat processing business – commonly referred to as a “locker” – where families had livestock butchered, smoked and cured. Stu recalls 5-6 lockers that once operated within 20 miles of where he lives.
Today, it’s just Lewright’s.
Stu says he enjoys raising pigs just as much as Paul and the team at Lewright Meats enjoys preparing quality meats for customers. The company’s products are available in supermarkets located in Mason City, and West Des Moines and all points in between.
“I like the physical part of farming. I like to see results. I really enjoy raising and marketing pigs because I can see how genetics works and how different production systems function,” Stu says.
“With row crops like corn and soybeans, you can plan all winter and see if it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, depending on what Mother Nature has in mind. You have somewhat more control raising pigs but even it isn’t foolproof. There are always factors that keep you on your toes.”
Stu admits that farming is a business. The cold, hard reality is that it takes money to operate a farm. The industry continues to change and those changes – including agricultural mergers, the value of the U.S. dollar and new technologies – require farmers to adapt or, when markets go down, do without certain things.
“When we get squeezed financially, we may not go on vacation or our child may not get a new pair of shoes. We have to live with the decisions we make,” he says.
“But more than that, it’s about growing safe food and protecting the environment. It’s more than financial – it’s about the end game and our impact on others. There’s a huge ethical side to the business. We keep this in mind as we make our decisions.”
“The big thing is that I want people to know that farmers think about where the products we grow go. We care about doing the best job we can. There’s something deeply meaningful about feeding people.”
The Swansons and Lewrights have been a family for nearly 20 years. They’re not big on change and that’s just fine with customers.
“We’re about doing things the right way, producing a great product and developing relationships that stand the test of time,” says Paul. “Stu shares this same philosophy and that’s what makes things work so well.
“We’re not huge and people are surprised we can do what we can do. We want to reach out to the farmers we work with. We take pride in what we do. The farmers we work with provide us with a great product.”