Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is the editor-in-chief of Living the Country Life and executive editor of Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and moved to the Midwest to get an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, have three children and own a farm where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans. 

November 26, 2012

Fall calf sales

Fall is prime time for calf sales. Bob and I went to Bosch Farms Limousin sale on Saturday. Owner Bob Bosch, Indianola, Iowa, does a great job of penning the animals in like groups and providing detailed information on the yearling bulls, hiefers, and steers so the 4-Hers and other buyers can quickly evaluate.

The sale is set up as a silent auction -- or private treaty sale. A base price is listed for each animal. If you want to place a bid, you let a family member know. Your bid is posted and may be increased by any bidder in $50 increments until the end of the sale that day. At that time, Bob opens the bidding, beginning with the calf with the highest bid. Bidding is limited to previous bidders and is in $50 increments. The calf is sold to the highest bidder. Any runner-up bidder is eligible to bid on another calf in the sale. Payment is expected before the animal leaves the farm.

Below is an example of the yearling bulls. RMKR Zion Nationals was born March 21, 2012 out of Mr Tom and Miss Shimmer. Bosch Farms says, "Zion is a very complete bull that combines thickness, depth of body, and structural correctness - all in one package." Starting price is $3,500.

Bob Bosch, left, with Bob Freese


November 20, 2012

How to spend Thanksgiving

I have three children in college. The two in Iowa, Warren and Caroline, wanted to visit the oldest, Nowlan, in South Carolina for Thanksgiving. Nowlan had just enough extra room for them, so said -- come on down! Bob is a busy veterinarian during the holidays, so we stay home. Therefore, I will put my feet up and read on Thanksgiving. This is my goal. Bob will probably decide we need to sort sheep or pick up sticks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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November 19, 2012

Winter strawberries

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association stopped by our offices and shared some delicious recipes and entertaining ideas. As the daughter of a strawberry farmer, I know a lot about this crop. I grew up working in the strawberry fields of Maryland. But I wasn't aware that fresh Florida stawberries (known as winter strawberries) are planted and grown specifically for sale in December through Easter. Chocolate-dipped strawberries for holiday parties? Yes, please.

Berries are booming with consumers, and Rabobank, a major agricultural lender, has forecast that the current trend for berry sales in the United States will continue at a 7% annual growth rate over the next three years. On Nov. 1, Rabobank’s Food and Agribusiness Research and Advisory group released a report, titled “The U.S. Fresh Berry Boom — Who Will Profit from the Growth?” The report states that while berry sales will continue to trend upward, escalating production costs, labor and land issues, import competition, and the sheer market power of retailers will make it challenging for farmers.

Here are some yummy strawberry recipes for you to try over the holidays. Enjoy your fruit!

November 15, 2012

7 types of potatoes

The United States Potato Board,, visited our office this week and shared a bushel of information about this popular vegetable. I love to grow potatoes, and am eager to try a few new varieties in my garden next spring. I won the Largest Potato at the Warren County (Iowa) Fair this year, and want to win again. World domination!

Settle down.

Here are some facts about potato varieties from the Potato Board that you can use when planning your garden:

Fingerlings (my basket, shown below, is full of yellow "banana" fingerling potatoes. Top flavor, in my opinion.)
Encompassing a wide variety of small, slender “finger-sized” potatoes, Fingerlings range from two-to-four inches in length. They come in a wide range of skin and flesh colors – red, orange, purple, yellow and white – and most posses a firm, waxy texture. Pan-frying enhances their robust flavor and showcases their wonderful nutty or buttery tastes. Or try a twist on a traditional by using fingerlings for a truly unique potato salad.

Petites are small, even “bite-sized” potatoes and share the same characteristics – color, flavor and texture – as their full-sized cousins. Petites can be found in red, white, yellow, brown and purple. Their flavors are actually more concentrated, and they cook more quickly, which makes potato salads a favored use for these types. Petites also make colorful, delicious and fun roasted potatoes.

Relative newcomers to the market, purple potatoes have a deep purple skin with flesh that ranges from purple to almost white. The rich, vibrant color and luscious taste make tossed salads a favored use. The moist, firm flesh retains its shape and adds rich colors to the salads, while the mild yet distinctly nutty flavor naturally complements the green salad flavors. They are also sensational roasted.

This type, once only available in late summer and early fall, is widely known for its rosy red skin and white flesh. Its moist, waxy flesh stays firm and flavorful throughout cooking, making it ideal for roasting. The slightly sweet, always-tender texture complements any dish and the vibrant red skin adds appealing color to the culinary presentation. They make tender, yet firm potato salads and add pizzazz to soups and stews.

Russets are the most widely used potato type in the U.S., characterized by a brown, netted skin and white flesh. The delicious result of baking this type is a light and fluffy center, surrounded by a tasty, robust and crispy roasted skin. The delicate potato flavor and grainy texture of a baked russet makes it the ideal partner for a variety of toppings, as flavor infusions is so natural to this type. Russets also create light and fluffy mashed potatoes and traditional crispy, pan-fried potatoes.

This all-purpose potato type has a white flesh and white (sometimes light tan) skin. Mashing is one favored use. They are slightly dense and creamy with a subtly sweet flavor. Their delicate, thin skins add just the right amount of texture to mashed potatoes without the need for peeling. Also try grilling whites to bring out a more full-bodied flavor, or use them in soups and stews as they hold their shape well.

Well known through Europe and fast gaining popularity in the U.S., this type boasts golden skin and golden flesh. One favored use is grilling. Its crispy skin enhances the dense and buttery texture. Grilling brings out this quality best, dazzling the palate with a slightly sweet, caramelized flavor. That naturally smooth and buttery texture also lends itself well to lighter versions of baked or roasted potatoes.

November 13, 2012

Lamb market crash

It is discouraging to work hard raising a farm product and then sell that product for less than it costs to produce it. That is the situation we are in with our sheep herd. Bob and I sorted off the heaviest 28 lambs, averaging 140 pounds, took them to the Colfax livestock auction, and received half what we got a year ago.

Bob has cut way back on the corn we feed the lambs, giving them more hay. They are growing just as fast on the good alfalfa, so we probably won't ever buy as much corn.

I was so frustrated I called our U.S. Senator, Chuck Grassley. He was sympathetic, but said it is difficult to get anyone to vigorously enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, and that's what it would take to stop the consolidation in the lamb packing industry. There are too few buyers for these animals. Grassley told me he used to raise sheep, but sold the last one in 1967. He kept one ewe as a pet, Susie, who died at 12 years old.

Here is more information from the American Sheep Industry Association about the current situation.

The lamb market for farmers and ranchers has collapsed to below half of last year's prices. That, combined with the severe drought and the corresponding high cost of feedstuffs, has put sheep producers in a very difficult situation. Eight U.S. Senators, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, stated this is why prompt support is needed for sheep producing operations, and requested the secretary to implement agriculture department actions in four key areas.

1. The Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration should immediately investigate the drastic change in the price spread between live lambs and meat markets to ensure that the benefits of the recent USDA commodity purchases actually reached the farm and ranch gate.

2. Support lamb-market price discovery and transparency, including market reporting and statistical reports provided by the department, to provide accurate and unbiased market information to producers and businesses.

3. The Risk Management Agency should conduct a full review of the Livestock Risk Program for lamb and to make the necessary adjustments to allow the program to function as an effective risk-management tool for sheep producers.

4. Make the opening of export markets for American lamb a priority. "Key markets, such as Europe,Taiwan and Russia, are closed to American lamb," said Peter Orwick, ASI executive director. "In fact, Japan shut down lamb trade nearly 10 years ago due to BSE and a key push from USDA is needed to right this trade disparity."

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) also forwarded a letter to Vilsack, writing, "While the drought has impacted the entire agriculture industry, the sheep industry has been hit particularly hard. In order to ensure a thriving, robust sheep industry here at home, I am asking that USDA take immediate and thorough action."

November 12, 2012

New fence

You know it's time for a new fence when you can't keep sheep in or town kids out.

Last spring I found our canoe floating upside down at one end of the pond with beer cans scattered on the shore. One paddle was missing and the other stuck in the mud at the other end of the pond.

This summer, after drought dried up the mud and brush behind the pond dam, our sheep found a hole in the fence and escaped to town. (Truth be told, it wasn't a hole in the fence but a missing section.)

Bob called a local fence-maker and he put us on his schedule. Here is the result. That is one well-used tractor.


November 8, 2012

A farmer with big ideas

By Betsy Freese

In the summer of 1994, I was covering the livestock beat for Successful Farming magazine and decided to assemble a ranking of the largest hog farmers in the U.S. While I was doing the initial research, someone told me I needed to talk to a big, blonde kid in Minnesota who had some aggressive ideas.

Bob Christensen, then 33, was running a family-owned farm in Sleepy Eye with his parents and brothers. Bob had never talked to the press, but after I pestered him with calls he agreed to give me a sow number for the ranking.

He told me how he started raising pigs at age 9 with two bred gilts and skipped college in favor of jumping into full-time farming after high school. He had built his herd to 11,000 sows and wanted to keep expanding.

“We are constantly asking ourselves, where is the industry going, what size do we need to be to survive?” he said. “I want to tell other independent producers: Don’t throw in the towel.”

Pork Powerhouses was published in the October 1994 issue of Successful Farming magazine, with Christensen Farms and Feedlots listed at number 26 in the ranking with 11,000 sows.

When I called Bob in 1995 he said, “I had lots of negative reaction up here to the story.” He didn’t like the exposure, but said he understood the need to publish the facts.

By July 1996, he had expanded his herd to 17,800 sows and said, “some of the controversy has died down up here. It helps that we work locally and purchase locally.”

The next year, I dropped by his office with a photographer and talked him into a few photos by the farm’s new feed mill with his younger brothers, Glen and Lynn.

We talked about expansion in the pig business and he said he didn’t like the “new-money wannabe’s” coming into the industry. He called himself a “producer with a true passion for pigs.”

He said, “Our values and motives are quite different from other hog producers. We all get lumped together sometimes.”

He stole his business philosophy from an old neighboring farmer, he said. “When everybody is fighting over feeder pigs, let ‘em have ‘em. When nobody wants pigs, buy 300 instead of 200 and find a place to feed them.” In general, said Bob, “When the industry slows down, we go hard. That’s a better time to find employees and breeding stock.”

He was proud of the new mill. “When we built the feed mill, people in the feed industry told us we could not pull it off without prior experience. Now they are copying some things we are doing.”

A year later, Bob had expanded to 44,000 sows and the hog market was in the tank. He told me he would do “no more expansion. We are done.”

But by 2000, the company had grown to 70,000 sows and Bob had hogs in Nebraska and Iowa. Building new farms to house pigs often meant local opposition, something the hog industry wasn’t handling right, said Bob. “It starts with how you treat and talk to your neighbors. I meet with the neighbors and they say they are surprised I would meet with them.”

He railed at the meat processing industry, saying, “Packers have to be cruel to survive.” If you want to get rid of vertical integration, he said, “Make sure all hogs are sold on the spot market and go back to true price discovery.”

He also railed at the grocery chains. “The retail sector has gained too much leverage,” he said. “Retail mark-up on pork is over $1 a pound. They beat down the meat supplier. Legislation needs to focus on retail consolidation.”

Two years after that, rumors swirled about Bob heading up a group of independent producers in the Midwest who wanted to buy or build their own packing plant. Bob confirmed it, but said he wasn’t ready to talk. “It’s about five months away and we are not ready to talk to the media,” he told me in December 2002.

“The difficulty is we are trying to include several producers across the Midwest, and we are helping them get financing. It’s not a traditional co-op -- the pigs vote, not people. It’s run like a private business,” he said.

Why make this huge investment? “If we don’t do something we will have to keep dancing with the packers,” he said. “I would rather have a proactive headache than a defensive headache.”

He wanted to use his roots as a family farmer to his advantage. “We are in a society that cares where hogs come from,” said Bob. “Family farms will have a huge force in the market.”

By the summer of 2003, Christensen Farms had grown to 94,000 sows and was a part of the newly-formed Triumph Foods. A packing plant near St. Joseph, Missouri, was set to break ground the next spring. Bob had become a packer.

“With the consolidation that’s going on, our options for selling our product has been reduced the last few years,” he said. “Unlike most producers, we are moving hogs to three or four different plants. This gives us another option. All our hogs will not go to the new plant. It’s like a 401K -- you keep it diversified.

“The real key is the producers own the shackle space,” he said. “There are no outside investors. We pave the way, and more plants will hinge on the success of this one.”

By the summer of 2004, Bob had expanded to 144,000 sows and his new packing plant was under construction. After years of being an independent producer, he was almost sheepish about the venture. “It is going to be awkward for me to be in processing and pig production as well,” he told me.

He was still eyeing expansion in production, but was picky. “There are lots of people looking to sell, but I’ve been strict about not looking at anything under 7,500 sows. Anything smaller is too much of a distraction.”

The next summer the facility was ready to open. Bob called in July to tell me, “Next week you will be first journalist to get a tour of the plant.” He was very proud of the work. “The plant has the 3 C’s,” he said. “Capacity, capital, and commitment.”

He reminisced about the early days of his farm and how he thought of himself as a producer first. “There is still a place in the industry for guys with 5,000 sows,” he said. “The industry will end up with a handful of large integrators, and then good 1,000- to 6,000-sow family farms that can kick our ass. The guys with 10,000 to 100,000 sows are in a precarious position, with exceptions.”

By late summer 2006, the first shift at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph was killing 1,000 hogs an hour and Christensen had expanded to 170,000 sows, mainly by acquiring other farms.

His growth in pig production was ending. “Construction costs are double what they were in the 1990s,” said Bob. “Cement is $100 a yard. When built our feed mill it was $34 a yard.”

Bob said he had cut back on day-to-day management of Christensen Farms after severely injuring his back, and had lost 70 pounds in the past four years.

In 2007, Christensen Farms helped to fund animal birthing and learning centers at the Minnesota State Fair and the Iowa State Fair. “I wish other big producers would sponsor this type of thing at their fairs,” said Bob. “If we don’t get aggressive we won’t be able to raise pigs.”

He was amazed at the productivity gains he was seeing in his sow farms. “We are averaging 25 pigs per sow per year. We were always higher than the industry average, but even we have improved by two pigs in the last three years. Our best 65,000 sows are averaging 28 p/s/y.”

He credited a switch in their genetic program, and talked about a breeding stock company he “fired” a few years earlier because, “I was their third largest customer and they didn’t listen to me.”

The increased productivity meant he could cull hard. “We let some of our higher-cost units go empty and reduced sows on many units,” he said. “Interesting fact is we were taking our sow units down 5% and still producing the same number of pigs.”

He said the Triumph Foods venture was “performing incredibly well, surpassed my expectations, but we are in a bit of a learning curve as a business.” He summed it up simply: “The packing industry is rough.”

He talked about management struggles on the production side and said, “My biggest disappointment is when I lose smart people from my team.” It was a challenge to attract talent to a small town like Sleepy Eye. Not everyone wanted to spend the winter in rural Minnesota.

By the summer of 2009, Bob made the decision to cut his sow numbers to 162,500, saying it would help pig production by giving remaining sows more space.

He sounded weary. “I’m not going to do this forever; my back still bothers me, and I want to spend more time with my kids. I have hundreds of growers and thousands of families, plus my Triumph partners, depending on me. That’s a lot of pressure.”

He ended our annual chat by saying, “I’m not as optimistic as I used to be.” The hog market was crashing again.

A year later, in September 2010, he reflected back on what had happened in the past 12 months. “The industry was within months, if not weeks of disaster,” he said. “I found myself putting backup capital plans in place, as were many other companies.”

He said, “I had a lot of stress last year. This is the first time we’ve gone through a bad market cycle and didn’t expand the business on the backside. I was focused on my health and on Triumph for a long time, and not on production. You have to have the right people.”

By September of 2011, Bob’s focus was on animal welfare and farm labor issues. With market attention focused on penned gestation, Bob was questioning the rational for such a change. “There’s a little more art to it,” he said about pens. “It’s harder to train non-farm people to work in that environment. It will reduce pigs coming out of the sow herd and create more seasonal variation.”

He said the hog industry needed to, “look inward and look harder at how all pigs are cared for every day. That’s the harsh reality and until we admit it, we won’t change. We have to improve animal welfare and pig care, and not tolerate things that are not right."

He said finding good labor was getting harder and harder. “We need to go into the high schools and find kids who aren’t going to college, and get them onto our farms. Get them as juniors before they go to the convenience store for $9 an hour. If we find a couple of 17-year-olds from every high school each year, we have local talent. Once kids go to college it’s beneath them to get dirty.”

He finished the conversation by talking about the fun he was having raising chickens with his son, age 12, and how much he enjoyed watching his daughter, age 9, ride her ponies. “We are getting some goats next year,” he told me.

In mid-July of this year, as I was starting my research for the annual Pork Powerhouses report, an animal rights group released an undercover video shot by an employee at a Christensen Farms sow farm near Hanska, Minnesota. The video showed sows in gestation crates, pigs getting their tails and testicles removed, and the use of manual blunt force trauma to kill sick and weak pigs – all standard and acceptable practices in the hog industry, but considered cruel and inhumane by the animal rights community and many viewers.

Bob Christensen released a statement to the media that said, in part, "We are committed to taking proper care of our animals. Over the years, we have continually challenged ourselves to improve our operational procedures involving the humane and ethical treatment of animals."

When I tried to reach Bob in August to talk about the Pork Powerhouses report, he did not return my calls or emails. For the first time in 18 years, we did not have our annual chat. Sow numbers for Triumph Foods were reported as an aggregate number, with no breakout or mention of Christensen Farms.

Last Saturday, Bob Christensen, CEO of Christensen Farms, died of an apparent heart attack while on a hunting trip with his family in Kansas. He was 51.

In a statement released by the company, Bob’s brother Lynn called his death, “A tragic loss not just to Christensen Farms, but the entire pork industry.” His obituary credits his imagination, intuitive business sense, and hard work, and says, “Bob built a pork production company that is, today, one of the largest family-owned livestock production operations in the world.”

Bob is buried at the Prairieville Cemetery in Brown County, Minnesota, near the farm where he began his life and his career. 

Bob Christensen, 1961-2012. Photo taken by Mitch Kezar in 2003.

Bob with his brothers Lynn, left, and Glen in 1997. Photo by Mitch Kezar.



November 6, 2012

Mom's pecan pies

Mom placed two of her famous pecan pies on the kitchen table to cool as I was leaving for the airport after a wonderful vacation in Maryland. I was not allowed to touch them, as they were for a church fundraiser the next day. I should have handed her $20 and put one in my suitcase.

Here is the recipe. More information and yummy recipes from Mom can be found here:

Mom's Pecan Pie

1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup dark corn syrup
4 tablespoons butter
1-1/4 cup broken pecans

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Cream the butter. Add the sugar and corn syrup. Beat in the eggs. Mix it all well. Add the pecans and vanilla. Pour the mixture into a 9-inch unbaked pastry shell. Bake in a 425-degree oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes.

November 5, 2012

My vacation with Sandy

Bob and I flew to Maryland last week to spend time with family and friends. Hurricane Sandy showed up while we there, but she didn't ruin the party. Mom and Dad's old farmhouse started to shake from the storm on Sunday night and by Monday the rain was coming in sheets, the porch roof was leaking, and the wind was roaring in gusts. This got stronger as the day went on, until about 9:00 that night when the center of the storm passed over the farm. We had two hours of eerie stillness and then the bands of winds were back, this time knocking out power. Just as I was settling in by the gas fireplace for a day of quiet, the power came back on. That's when we started to see the news reports of horrible destruction to the Jersey shore and New York area. God bless everyone still suffering through the aftermath. We are back in Iowa now, where the weather was beautiful while we were gone.

Dad's sudan grass maze before the storm.

After Sandy.


October 26, 2012

Our "neat red barn" makes LA Times

I'm not sure if the writer thought our barn was neat, as in tidy, or neat, as in appealing, or both, but our barn made the Los Angeles Times yesterday. You can read the story here. (Ignore the politics, if you like.) It is a decent reflection of our town and the citizens. I guess we sit in the center of the political universe.

The paragraph that describes our farm is this one:

The vista heading toward Des Moines is particularly telling: a tall, sky-blue water tower, "Indianola" emblazoned across the tank's width. A neat red barn in a stand of trees losing leaves with the approach of winter. And the new YMCA, a crane looming over unfinished walls, with opening day nine months or so in the future.

Bob was surprised the writer didn't mention the giant compost pile beside the neat barn. That could have made a nice segue to politics.