Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.


Twitter: betsyfreese

November 1, 2013

One year later - Christensen Farms

By Betsy Freese

The story of Bob Christensen is tragic in many ways, as is the story of anyone who dies in the prime of life. How his family and his farm business, one of the largest pork production companies in the U.S., reacted to his abrupt passing is a lesson in moving on.

On November 3, 2012, Robert Christensen, 51, founder and CEO of Christensen Farms & Feedlots, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, died of a heart attack while hunting with friends and son, Cubby, 14.

“I got a phone call from Cubby. He said, ‘Dad’s had a stroke or heart attack. He was flown out and they are taking care of him,’ ” says Mary Ann Christensen, Bob’s widow and mother of their children, Robert, Jr., (Cubby) and Kellen, 11. She soon got another call that Bob had not survived.

 “He died doing something he loved, surrounded by people he loved,” says Mary Ann. His quick death was a blessing, she says, because, “Bob would have been a horrible patient if anything debilitating had happened.”

The viewing, funeral, and burial were attended by 800 people from across the country. Farm workers drove 10 hours to come to the wake and then drove back that night to start their next shift, say Mary Ann. “It was amazing. Bob would have been embarrassed. The church was overflowing.”

As funeral plans were being made, senior management and advisors met to determine what the family-owned company of 1,000 employees producing 3.5 million hogs a year should look like both short- and long-term. They knew they had to reassure employees, many hand picked and hand groomed by Bob, to move forward.

On Monday morning there were a lot of teary eyes and uncertainty, says his younger brother Lynn. “It was reassuring to see individuals rise up, strap their boots on, and show faith in the company. That was awe inspiring.”

Lynn Christensen, or Spike, as the family calls him, ran the construction side of the business until the late 1990s, and then got a degree in architecture and moved to Denver to work as a developer. The day Bob died, Lynn knew he needed to come back to Sleepy Eye to support the family and company. “I didn’t have a choice; after all it’s a family business.”

Bob left a solid succession plan for Christensen Farms. The company continues to be family owned by Mary Ann and Lynn, with support from a strong management team and board of directors.

“After the initial chaos around the funeral it became clear we would pull together as a team,” says Mary Ann. “Spike and the senior management meshed. I decided quickly my main focus had to be on the kids.” She attends board and advisory meetings, but lets Lynn and Glenn Stolt, who was the chief financial officer at the time of Bob’s death and is now CEO, run the business.

In addition, Bob’s long-time legal counsel and close friend Gary Koch provided stability and counsel, she says. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to Gary.” He continues on as Christensen Farms’ legal counsel in addition to sitting on the board of directors.

Ups and downs
The history of Bob and Mary Ann has as many peaks and valleys as the hog market. She grew up in South Carolina and was director of research for the agriculture construction company Hog Slat when she was asked to fly to Minnesota to meet a farmer who had issues with a sow unit.

“I broke that rule and went out with a customer for a beer,” says Mary Ann. Before long she was riding in the front seat of a red pickup between Bob and Spike on her way to a “hag and stag” in New Ulm. Welcome to Minnesota, you betcha.

“Twenty two years later and a lot of ups and downs and arounds, here I am,” says Mary Ann. When the kids came, Bob, who had started raising hogs at age 12, wanted to be at home more, “but the company needed him. He couldn’t stop,” she says. A typical day found Bob calling her mid-afternoon to ask if he could bring six people home for dinner. “Six would be 16,” says Mary Ann.

“He could sit around a bonfire with his staff and drink beer, and then chew them out at work the next day,” she says. “He expected excellence. It didn’t matter if someone was his friend – there was a job to do.”

Bob went to bat for some people, she says, and “for other people he had no mercy. Done. Fired.” At the funeral, one former employee told her, “I hated him for awhile until I realized he was right.”

Staffing decisions took a personal toll on him, she says. “Many nights he agonized over things. If someone wasn’t cutting it, it was very hard for him. Those are tough decisions. My father kept business and social very separate. Here it was pleasure and business, beer on the patio. Bob and I had heated arguments about it and he ignored what I said.”

The most stressful time, she says, was a decade ago when Bob was designing Triumph Foods, the first farmer-owned pork packing plant in the U.S. “Triumph was a struggle because nobody had done it,” says Mary Ann. “Bob did not want to be on the bleeding edge; he was a quick adopter, but didn’t want to be the first one. He analyzed it to the nth degree times 50,000, but once he made up his mind he moved forward and had fun. Getting to the point to push the go button -- that was the worst.”

The stress took its toll on their marriage. Bob and Mary Ann separated for three and a half years and then reconciled. “We got along much better when we were separated,” says Mary Ann. “He lived in New Ulm and I lived here with the kids.” They got back together, she says, “Once we figured out, as all couples do, how much information to share.” She didn’t want to hear about Christensen Farms 24-7 and it wasn’t healthy for him to work night and day.

Hard driving
Lynn Christensen remembers the hard-driving days when he and Bob were building Christensen Farms. “In the early days we frequently started at the crack of dawn and ended at midnight in the bank building [home of their first office], discussing ongoing activities and planning until 2 a.m., and then we got up at 6:00 and did it again.”

The goal was to build the best infrastructure for pork production in the industry, one that would remain long-term, says Lynn. “Everybody just fell into Bob’s vision. We all had an area of specialty. It was never about making money quickly and then departing the industry. The buildings, genetics, feed, and contract growers were all hand picked.”

Since Bob’s death, Lynn has visited the company farms, touring dozens of sites, some originals he helped build in the early 1990s. The company today is still “like a large family,” he says.

Mary Ann has stacks of letters sent to her after Bob’s death detailing the extent he went to help farmers. “The bottom line was it was not all about money for Bob,” she says. “We have fabulous growers who needed a hand and are good people. Bob did what it took to get buildings for them. They told us, ‘We were in low point in the farming cycle and Bob signed for us.’ We got letter after letter like that.”

Bob was the visionary, did most of the risk management work, and was chairman of the board at Triumph. Those roles are not easily replaced.

“With Bob being such an influential leader, how we bridge that gap is important,” says Stolt. “We want to continue to grow the family business. Bob operated on the premise that we can always do better. He tested every approach and looked at everything with a critical eye.”

It’s inbred in the culture of Christensen Farms to strive for excellence, says Stolt. “Even though Bob is no longer with us, that will live on. This industry will continue to change. We must be nimble and flexible.” Challenges, he says, include:

1. Diseases such as porcine epidemic diarrhea. Biosecurity has to be tight on farms.
2. Animal activists trying to harm the industry.
3. Decreasing labor pool.
4. Trade issues and pork consumption. “We need to produce a quality, safe pork product that’s in demand.”
5. Regulations that make production more expensive.
6. Age of barns and assets.

Mary Ann and Lynn are focused on retaining Christensen Farms as a family-owned business. “We have a great deal of confidence in the management team to continue to grow and expand the business for future generations,” says Lynn. His two children are too young to be involved. Mary Ann’s children are still getting over the loss of their father.

“It’s hard on the kids,” she says. “They hear the door open and think Dad’s home. Cubby says he misses seeing Dad coming over the hill in his white truck – fast, late, and on his phone.”

She cries. “We’ve had overwhelming support. The saddest thing for me is that Bob isn’t getting to watch it happen. He’s probably up there laughing.” More tears.

“You either get stuck in sad or get stuck in glad,” says Mary Ann. “We are moving forward, but I’d give anything to have him back.”

More Info
Write to Mary Ann at

To read, “A Farmer with Big Ideas: How Bob Christensen Changed the Pork Industry,” go to:

To download the 2013 Pork Powerhouses, go to:

The Christensen family includes (from left) Kellen, 11, Mary Ann, Cubby, 14, Laura, Emma, 3, Lynn (Spike), and Joshua, 5.

Bob Christensen 1961-2012


October 29, 2013

Making horseradish

Three years ago I planted three horseradish plants for Bob's birthday. He loves horseradish sauce. On Sunday we dug, cleaned, peeled, and processed the roots. The results are delicious and have perfect heat. Here are some photos. You can also see the steps here.

I cut off the roots after Bob dug them out (the hardest job).

Raw roots in the wheelbarrow.

I soaked them in warm water in the sink.

The tubars are easy to peel with a standard carrot peeler.

Cut two 6-inch tubars into pieces, add 2 tablespoons of water, and process on low until creamy. Let sit for 2 minutes and add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Process for a few seconds.

Use a spatula to scrape horseradish into small canning jars. Store up to a month in the refrigerator.

Bob eats horseradish with roast beef, roast lamb, roast pork, and on sandwiches. He's German.


October 28, 2013

Bob's Cover Crop

We let the ewes into the cover crop of radishes and turnips yesterday. They didn't know what to make of it. A few looked at us as if to say, "Are you sure we should be in here?" You can see the size of the roots below. I've heard that when the turnips start to rot later the smell is nasty. I wonder if we should warn our neighbors?

October 24, 2013

Pond progress

Last spring I told you how we reseeded the bank of our pond. Despite a dry summer, the effort was worth it. Here are some before and after photos. It was a good year for our pond. The water stayed clear of algae (the young grass carp are doing their job). We are ready for winter.

The south side of our pond on May 6.

This was late July.

Looking back to the west from the bank.

October 21, 2013

My DNA Experiment

Last winter, our son Nowlan sent Bob and me DNA kits from Personal DNA testing has come a long way and the price for a kit has dropped to $99. All we had to do was spit in a small tube and mail it back in the postage-paid box. I registered our kits online and then waited two months for the results.

When I told our families about the testing they were supportive. They understand and appreciate scientific advancements, and they trust Nowlan, who now has his PhD in biological sciences. (That is his picture at the bottom of a color stain of the gene Fgf8 in a chicken embryo.)

When I got the email saying my DNA results were ready, my heart was pounding. I wasn't sure what to expect. I will give you a quick glance at my DNA below.

Since January I have bought kits and tested all three of our kids, my parents, Bob's dad, my sister, and two uncles. I've also shared data with a cousin on In a nutshell, our family is probably boring from a DNA standpoint. All of our ancestors came from Northern Europe. DNA did not show any major inherited conditions or health issues. That being said, it was still fascinating.

Here are a few things about my DNA to give you an idea:

The greatest health risk for women with my genotype is venous thromboembolism (deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism). What can I do about this risk? Don't smoke, keep my weight in check, get up and move on airplane flights, and don't take oral hormone replacement therapy. Check, check, check, check.

I am not a carrier for any of the 52 inherited conditions tested by

I am susceptible to infection by the most common strain of norovirus ("cruise ship illness"). Bob is resistant. That means I won't be going on any cruises.

I am a fast caffeine metabolizer: drinking coffee doesn't increase my heart attack risk. That's good to know, because I enjoy my morning cup of joe.

Large pieces of my DNA are identical to that of 23andMe members from:

1. United Kingdom

2. Ireland

3. Sweden

I have 2.7% Neanderthal DNA, which puts me in the 47th percentile among European 23andMe members.

My maternal genetic line is one of the oldest haplogroups in Europe. It arose when modern humans moved into western Eurasia from the Near East about 40,000 years ago. The 9% of Europeans who carry my haplogroup today can trace their maternal ancestry directly back to those early colonizers of Europe.

My paternal genetic line is especially common today in Scandinavia - it reaches levels of over 50% in Sweden. (My maiden name is Johnson.)

I inherited my immune system from my mother.

My mother has more genes in common with my cousin Jacque than she does with my three children. That blew my mind until I thought about it. You always share the most DNA with your full siblings. So the child of one of your siblings could be more similar in DNA to you than you are to your grandchildren.

I've only scratched the surface, but this gives you an idea of what is in store with the new world of DNA. It's scary and exciting. Knowlege is power.




October 17, 2013

What a fall display!

The headquarters of our parent company, Meredith, in Des Moines, Iowa, features a four-story banner each season to great visitors. This summer, the image was a stack of colorful flipflops. The new banner features an autumn display from the Fall issue of Living the Country Life. It looks beautiful!

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October 15, 2013

See our cover crop grow

We planted our first cover crop, a field of radishes and turnips, on August 20. It didn't rain for the next three weeks. The crop emerged slowly and unevenly. I took the first photo on September 21. Two nice rains after that made a huge difference. The second photo was taken on October 8. We are almost ready to turn the sheep in to graze.

Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, says 1,000 farmers in Iowa have planted 100,000 acres to cover crops since August as part of the state's cost share program. That farmer number doesn't count people like my husband, who planted the crop on his own.

Stay tuned as our experiment continues...

September 21

October 8

October 11, 2013

Fall on the farm

September and October are my favorite months in the country. I wanted to share a few photos from my trip to Mom and Dad's farm in Maryland. I've never seen Dad's fields looking better. I couldn't find one weed in the strawberries. The red raspberries were making their fall crop. A weird, new crop was adding nitrogen to the soil. Take a look.

Dad is planting rye as a cover crop.

These strawberry plants will be at full production next spring.

Red raspberries have a small fall crop, but not enough to open to the public for picking.

These are sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) roots, a new cover crop Dad tried this year. The nodules on the roots are full of nitrogen. Dad plows it under as green manure.

Mom and Dad at a local crab house.


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October 9, 2013

Cats -- hello and goodbye

First we lost our old cat Marvin, who died of natural causes at age 18 in July. Our other cat, Mario, 7, seemed depressed after his buddy Marvin left, wandering around aimlessly, but still eating well.

In August, our oldest son, Nowlan, brought us his young cat, Rin, to care for while he and his wife live in Europe the next few years. Rin hid under furniture and hissed at us for a week or two and then settled in.

Mario was patient with Rin, never reacted to her hissing, and was mainly just interested in what food she had left in her bowl. There were no cat fights.

Three days ago, Mario stopped eating. Bob treated him with antibiotics, but he didn't improve. Yesterday, a scan at the vet clinic showed an enlarged heart with fluid in the heart area. Mario was struggling to breathe and had to be put to sleep. It was a shock, because he seemed fine on Saturday. Bob buried him in the garden.

Our son Warren says Mario never acted the same after Marvin died. I don't know what to think. He was a big cat -- big head, big paws, big appetite, big heart. We will miss him. I'm not getting any more pets after Rin leaves. It's too hard.

Here is a photo I took of Mario a week before he died. At the bottom is a photo of Rin.



October 7, 2013

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Every fall I write an exclusive report on the swine industry for Successful Farming magazine called Pork Powerhouses. This is the 19th year I have collected data on the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. There is always a new issue confronting these producers, and this year it is a deadly disease. I have dropped in the table below, but you can download it here:

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Disease Hits as Growth Continues

By Betsy Freese, Executive Editor, Successful Farming


The biggest issue for the nation’s largest pork producers at this moment isn’t an international merger, but an international virus.

In May, a deadly viral disease never before seen in the U.S. broke in farrowing barns in Colorado, causing up to 100% mortality in newborn pigs. “I went in the barns and saw healthy pigs being born and 24 hours they were dead,” says Terry Holton, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods. “We hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The disease was identified as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), caused by a virus earlier reported in Europe and Asia. By summer, it had spread across the Midwest and into North Carolina.

The disease hit the Oklahoma operations of Prestage Farms in June. “For four weeks we lost 100% of baby pigs,” says Zack McCullen, vice president of swine production. “I’m scared to death of that virus. I’m worried about what happens when it cools off and winter comes.”

In August, Garland Farm Supply was hit hard by PED on the company’s sow farm near Plains, Kansas. “We are out in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter,” says owner Alfred Smith. “We lost four weeks worth of pigs. It’s similar to TGE [transmissible gastroenteritis], but worse.”

No exact numbers exist for how many pigs have died from PED, but the National Pork Board says there are positive tests for the virus in 17 states, with most of the confirmed cases in Iowa and Oklahoma. There is no cure or vaccine yet. The disease is the top-of-mind topic for the nation’s largest producers this fall.

Sow numbers up; China is in

The annual Pork Powerhouses ranking by Successful Farming magazine, now in its 19th year, shows a growth of 132,600 sows by the largest 25 U.S. hog operations in 2013. This is more than twice the growth as 2012, when producers added 62,000 sows. More telling, 17 operations added sows this year, versus nine in 2012.

The total number of sows owned or managed by the nation’s largest 25 producers, seven of whom are also pork packers, stands today at 3.18 million. That’s about 55% of the total U.S. breeding inventory reported by the USDA in September.

Smithfield Foods, at the top of the Pork Powerhouses list with 868,000 sows, dropped a bombshell on May 29 when it announced plans to sell to Chinese-based Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Smithfield shareholders would receive $34 in cash per share of common stock owned. On September 24, the shareholders approved the $4.7 billion acquisition by Shuanghui, making the transaction the biggest purchase of a U.S. company ever by a Chinese firm.

“We are marrying up with the largest pork customer on the face of the earth,” says Joe Szaloky, vice president of procurement and business development for Smithfield. “This should be really good for U.S. pork.”

Smithfield will continue to operate under its existing brand names as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shuanghui International.

The deal does not mean Chinese pork will enter U.S. markets. “They [Shuanghui] came looking at us as a source of meat for China,” says Szaloky. “There is no opposite flow. They are not experienced with raising pigs.”

Szaloky says for the next few months at least, the new ownership won’t affect Smithfield sow numbers. “We are not interested in adding more sows; we’ve got plenty of sows. Our focus in on being more productive, stable, and reliable.”

One change Smithfield has made is to quit feeding Paylean (ractopamine) on its Eastern farms. The company’s packing plants in Clinton and Tar Heel, North Carolina, are completely Paylean free. The feed additive makes pigs grow lean meat faster, but is banned in China. The export market demanded the change, says Szaloky.

There are no immediate plans to eliminate Paylean on Smithfield farms outside of the East Coast, he says. “It does have an advantage to growing pigs.”

The move from crates

Converting from crates to group housing of pregnant sows is another of Smithfield’s priorities. By the end of the year, more than 50% of the company’s gestating sows will be in pens, a type of housing preferred by animal welfare activists and demanded by some food retailers.

“People think we are making the switch kicking and screaming, but it’s turned into an opportunity to make our business better,” says Szaloky. “We had a lot of 20-year-old facilities. Now they are remodeled into new, born-again assets. We are very pleased with it and happy with the performance we are seeing.”

All Smithfield sows should be in group housing by 2017, says Szaloky. “We are still on target and don’t see an issue. It’s an investment, but sow productivity is strong and consistent.”

Many of the largest producers do not share Smithfield’s enthusiasm about group housing of pregnant sows. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states there are advantages and disadvantages to any sow housing system. “Group housing systems are less restrictive, but allow aggressive and competitive behaviors that could be detrimental to individual sows,” states the AVMA.

The National Pork Board (NPB) does not recommend one type of sow housing over another, stating, “Regardless of the system, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig." Producers should be able to decide for themselves the type of production system that is best for their animals, and for them, given their resources and markets, says the NPB.

Market hog numbers dropping

In September, hog numbers at slaughter were running 3% less than the previous year, something that surprised and concerned many of the largest producers. Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, says he expects pig losses from the PED virus to reduce slaughter numbers by up to 2%, but we won’t see that effect until later in the fall. He suspects the drop is simply because the head counts a year ago were unusually high.

“Last year at this time we were heavy into the drought,” says Hurt. “We had really high corn prices, which caused people to advance marketings. This year they are delaying marketings. Last September head counts were 3-7% above the year before that. There was a rapid movement of hogs to market.”

Potential for profit

Hurt has a positive outlook. “The pork industry is finally looking at the potential of multiple years of profitability,” he says. “Pork is well positioned to fill the beef demand gap. The beef industry just can’t get numbers up, and pork is in a position to gobble up the demand.”

As for the Smithfield sale to a Chinese firm, Hurt says, “Overall, that is positive for the pork industry. It gives us access to the word’s largest market. The gates are open.”

Alfred Smith, who owns 22,000 sows with Garland Farm Supply, headquartered in Garland, North Carolina, blames high feed costs over the past year for market hog numbers dropping. “Liquidation is more severe than you think, mainly by smaller farms,” says Smith. “This is an unintended consequence of $8 corn. What we’ve seen for the past 12 months are severe losses.”

All of the Pork Powerhouses are concerned about the effect PED will have over the winter. Seaboard has locked down its sow farms, trying to keep them as self-contained as possible. “We are looking at every aspect of our business – trucks, maintenance, people,” says CEO Terry Holton. “We are reducing truck traffic and trying to have as little movement as possible. We are building additional truck washes and extra segregation at the plant.

“There is quite a large reservoir of virus still out there.”


Did you know?

15 years ago, Smithfield Foods had 152,000 sows in the U.S., versus 868,000 today.

Minnesota is home to the largest number of Pork Powerhouses, with nine companies on the list (including two members of Triumph Foods). Next is Iowa with six. In 1994, North Carolina had the most farms on the list, with eight.

10 years ago, the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. had 2.52 million sows, versus 3.18 million today.