Kentucky Dawgs bite into the local food market
by Ray Bowman
(First appeared in Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association publication Cow Country News August issue)
Henry County cattleman David Neville spent a quarter century using his marketing degree and commensurate skills for what he calls “corporate America.” Now he’s applying his expertise and some of the experience gained in the business world to help Kentucky producers sell their wares, most prominently a product of Neville’s own creation called Kentucky Dawgs.
“I had what I thought was going to be a ‘one-off’ conversation with the executive director of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, Dave Maples, about getting local beef into the Kentucky State Fair,” Neville recalls. In past years, the food booths run by KCA at the event have relied on beef, supplied by commercial vendors, that may have been raised or finished anywhere in the United States.
The idea of using Kentucky-sourced beef was attractive, but Neville indicates that a little something extra was needed to really seal the deal.
Neville says a meeting at the University of Kentucky that touched upon nutritional applications for hemp and hemp oil sparked an idea. The discussion involved how to sell hemp foods and how to sell local beef, and the question was already on the table about introducing a local beef product in the Commonwealth’s most high-profile venue.
An all-beef sausage flavored with hemp oil and textured with hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds) seemed to fit the bill. The oil comes from Victory Hemp Farms, also located in Henry County, so you might think utilizing the product wouldn’t pose a major problem, right?
Hemp is still an experimental crop in Kentucky and its use required some clarification from the federal authorities. Neville was cautioned that approval to use the additive might take as much as 2 years. “Fortunately, I’m hard-headed enough that I just kept after it,” Neville said.
To help smooth the path and expedite approval for the use of hemp, Neville turned to another farmer from Lewis County, who also just happened to be his congressman.
Rep. Thomas Massie followed up on Neville’s request and soon the USDA responded to the congressman by email, saying that hemp oil and seeds may be used for flavoring meat and poultry products without any additional approval.
Rather than 2 years, the clarification took about 10 days. “We had, for the first time ever, approval to put hemp products in processed meat products, so away we go!”
With that hurdle cleared, there was still a minor problem to be addressed. Neville knew nothing about making sausage.
“I spent three years in the Army in Germany, so I knew what a good sausage was supposed to taste like,” Neville reflected. “I didn’t know how to make it, but I knew what it was supposed to be.”
Webb’s Butcher Block in Meade County got things started, overseeing the production of the first Kentucky Dawgs that made their debut at the Kentucky State Fair last year. As a result of the initial offering, the Kroger supermarket chain approached Neville about the product and now features it in fifty-two of their locations around the Commonwealth.
Produced without the hemp, The Kentucky Dawg becomes the School Dawg which is now being embraced by school lunch programs to provide students with an alternative to conventional frankfurters.
After a successful trial run in Frankfort at the Capitol Annex cafeteria during the 2017 legislative session, Neville hopes to soon see Kentucky Dawgs available throughout the Kentucky State Park system.
New products, such as a spicy Kentucky Hot Link, bologna and a Caliente Dawg targeted to Hispanic consumers are also in the works.
The first Dawgs were made from two of Neville’s steers. Now the meat is sourced from cattlemen all over Kentucky. Often it is the trim from more sought-after primal cuts that is usually included in ground beef. Selling the trim for use in the production of the beef sausages provides growers who direct-sell their steaks and roasts with yet another revenue source.
The local foods movement, focusing many times on value-added products like Neville’s brainchild, has been very successful in recent years. Of course, the quality must be there for customers to keep coming back, but almost as important is the sense of place, connection to the land and the support of regional agriculture local foods provide.
“As I’ve said many times, David Neville is not irresistible, but this story we have is,” he muses. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”