Before the farm-to-table social movement was as popular as it is today, Thrushwood Farms Quality Meats opened its doors in May of 1978, fully embracing the concept of community-supported agriculture, even partnering with a pig farm to raise the animals, process and sell the meat locally.
Things did not work out the way the Galesburg, Illinois-based company initially planned.
“We were unfortunately just too far ahead of our time,” says Jim Hankes, Thrushwood owner and CEO.
But Thrushwood’s reputation as a custom meat processor for local farmers, and their retail store – stocked with fresh meats, smoking hams, bacon and summer sausage – was enough of a foundation to build upon. When the economy hit the farm industry hard in the 1980s, Hankes maintained the custom processing business, and thanks to two smokehouses on site, added a catering business and then deer processing in the 1990s to diversify.
Forty years later, Thrushwood Farms is still pushing out quality products.
“Our hams and bacon are what we’re known for,” says Hankes. “Fresh and frozen sausage and pork products are a top seller, as is our beef. As meat snack sticks have evolved, so have our jerky products.”
And back when the company was just getting started, Hankes remembers becoming acquainted with Jerry Hall, the late founder of Excalibur Seasoning.
“At the time, my wife Kae and I were talking to Jerry when he was thinking about starting his own seasoning business, so we were in with him on the ground floor,” recalls Hankes. “I always liked Jerry. He was so knowledgeable and experienced in the field. He knew products. Jerry and the Excalibur crew could always break down flavors and enhance them to make them better.”
Hankes says his business has grown with Excalibur because of the seasoning company’s deep knowledge base and their flexibility with developing products and custom blends for Thrushwood customers.
“Excalibur hires people who have worked in the meat industry and actually made the sausage,” says Hankes. “They know the products and that’s helpful. Excalibur’s representatives will go back to their team with the flavor idea and give their input to the culinary folks who make the samples. This experience just makes the process better.
“About ten years ago, Excalibur successfully helped us remove MSG from our products while not altering the flavor. Customers didn’t even know we took it out, even though “MSG free” was on the label. Just the fact that we can make good products was a combination of Excalibur and us. What we do together has proven to be great.”
Thrushwood uses Excalibur seasonings for sausage, ham, bacon cure and their blends for co-packing. The company carries the majority of the Excalibur retail line, with the shakers, sauces and blends already made in their products.
“We have some of the hardcore regulars in stock like Excalibur’s custom BBQ blend. We buy half a pallet at a time. It has a real following.
“I personally like the custom BBQ blend because you can use it on anything you cook or grill. When we cater, people think the grilled steaks with this spice are awesome. This time of year, Prime Rib Rub and Grill In, Grill Out are additional favorites.”
After nearly forty years, there’s no sign the Thrushwood/Excalibur relationship is slowing down. Hankes says, so far, it’s been a balance of achieving success, steady growth and relying on each other.
“We have a great working relationship as far as getting things accomplished. Excalibur cares and that’s their niche. They became a reputable business, but never forgot the little guy.
“People who take care of us and help us get to where we are and need to be is important to us. If I build a good relationship with a company, I am pretty loyal, so I’m true to Excalibur.”