Every once in a while, you have to deal with a company that confounds the way you normally look at stocks. Enter pork-and-beef producer Smithfield Foods (NYSE:SFD). Despite a history of choppy (and generally sub-optimal) margins, and returns on capital and valuations that have often looked "too high," compounded earnings growth has been stellar. Better still, the stock has been on a choppy but inexorably positive ride for more than 10 years.

In some respects, fourth-quarter results at Smithfield are a bit of a microcosm of the past -- internally choppy, but with undeniable promise for the future.

Reported total revenue climbed nearly 16%, and operating profit was up almost 18%. While all segments showed double-digit revenue growth, operating profits were down in the pork, beef, and international businesses. All of the growth came from the hog-production segment, where operating profits climbed 92% from last year.

The underlying story at Smithfield is positive, just as it is at Hormel (NYSE:HRL), Tyson (NYSE:TSN), or any other large meat producer. Worldwide protein demand is steadily increasing, and large operators are becoming very efficient at meeting that demand.

Although operating profit performance in the meat categories was disappointing, I'm not inclined to make too big a deal out of it -- particularly with the offsetting performance in hog production. Though skidding hog prices might not be great for the hog-raising aspect of the business, lower grain prices will soften the blow, and lower pork prices generally translate into higher processing margins. So, what is lost on one side should be at least somewhat recaptured on the other.

I'm not going to say that Smithfield has all of the financial statistics that I love, but you can't always judge a winner by numbers alone. After all, Gretzky was a runt and Emmitt Smith was a little slow, but both of them performed all right, didn't they? So, even though I'd like a cleaner balance sheet and a dividend, you can't always have it your way in the stock market.

With the stock having skidded a bit recently, the P/E is now about 11 -- the lower end of the range over the past five or so years. I'd be willing to bet that Smithfield can continue to grow at a low-teens rate in the next few years to come, so valuation doesn't appear stretched right now.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).