Wholestone Farms looks to the future

Scott Webb is clearly happy to be at the Wholestone Farms plant in Fremont.

“I’ve been in numerous plants across the country and there’s something really special about the workforce here in Fremont. I think that also sheds a positive light on the community,” he said.

Webb is the chief executive officer of the local plant, which employs 1,440 workers and plans to make a $150 million investment in the facility at 900 S. Platte Ave., over the next three years.

The Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp., announced plans in August 2018 to sell the Fremont plant to Wholestone Farms, LLC, which took over the facility that December.

Wholestone is a farmer-owned company and currently represented by 220 independent farmers, most of whom come from second, third and – in some cases – fourth generation farms, Webb said.

“That group represents and markets 12 million pigs a year. They collectively, as a group, own approximately 400,000 acres of cropland in states throughout the Cornbelt,” Webb said.

Wholestone processes 10,600 head of hogs per day – about 2.2 million pounds of fresh pork every day.

As part of the purchase agreement with Hormel, all of the product Wholestone produces will be transferred to Hormel for the next three years.

After that, Wholestone will sell its own products – a complete line of fresh pork – which it will market domestically and globally.

“We plan to get into the export markets as well,” Webb said.

More plans lie in the future.

“We’d like to double-shift this plant – which means we would add a second shift and process 21,000 head a day,” he said.

To do that, it will need to install a wastewater treatment plant.

“We are in the process of getting that all pulled together,” he said.

Improvements will come in two phases.

The first phase will include the renovation of employee locker rooms.

“We’ll have a brand, new cafeteria,” he said.

Enhancements will be made to equipment within the plant and offices will be expanded and remodeled.

“It will have a whole new face on the front and everything will look completely different when you walk inside – making it a more modern-day setting for our people,” he said.

The second phase of improvements will involve more transformation.

“During the three-year window, Hormel will be taking some of the things out of the plant that are specific to them and moving them to other Hormel facilities,” he said. “As they do that, we will expand the harvest and fabrication areas to position us to produce more fresh pork – things like ribs, loins and tenderloins – and also will be gearing up to be able to take on a second shift at some point, down the road.”

That second shift won’t double the number of employees but will increase it substantially.

Webb stressed the importance of the company’s employees.

“The people who walk through the gates out here every morning – they’re the heart and soul of the company and we have to take care of them,” Webb said.

After plans to purchase the plant became public in August, Wholestone officials announced plans to offer jobs to all of the plant’s current workers.

“Our arrangement with Hormel and our hope and expectation was that we would retain the majority of employees who were here when we acquired the plant from Hormel and they became Wholestone employees,” he said.

Webb said he’s proud to report that 99.5 of these employees are still here.

That includes Plant Manager Steve Weers, who worked for Hormel for many years.

“We have a great, dedicated workforce here – one of the lowest turnover facilities in the industry and tremendous tenure, people who have been here for a long time,” Webb said.

Webb, himself, has a long tenure in this industry.

Born and raised in a small, north-central Kansas community, he has been in the pork, food and processing business since 1985.

He began his career working for a farmer-owned cooperative.

“I love working with farmers,” he said. “I have passion for farmers and producers of food products.”

As CEO of Wholestone Farms, he has the opportunity to use his experience to help farmer-owners.

Historically, farmers have earned money from the sale of animals or grain.

By pooling their resources and purchasing the plant, Wholestone’s farmer-owners also now can earn funds from the sale of the meat.

Webb notes the benefits to consumers of having a farmer-owned plant.

“Consumers today are very interested in understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced,” he said. “As the result of us being a farmer-owned company and the fact that our farmers own their land, they raise their own crops and pigs and now we will be processing their pigs for them. Now that they own a plant, we truly can provide those answers to consumers.

Webb said consumers want transparency with regard to where their food originates.

“They do know that we’re sustainable – that we’re practicing things on the farm that are good for the environment – like converting waste and energy, minimizing the water that we use, treating the animals humanely,” he said. “Because we’re farmer-owned and we have agreements with each of the farmer-owners that align all those practices. We do have control of that and we feel that will be a very good thing for us for the long term as we start selling products of our own.”

Webb knows Wholestone Farms can benefit the community.

Expanding the plant will create more jobs as the plant adds a second shift.

That, in turn, will create more tax dollars.

It will benefit the local economy as employees buy houses and groceries, pay taxes and have children in the school system.

Webb is looking toward the years ahead.

“It’s exciting to be part of this great farmer-owned company to help lead them into a very bright future,” he said, adding, “It’s farmer-owned and that’s unique in this business. Not many – if any – companies are doing what we do on this scale that are farmer-owned.”