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A farmer with big ideas

November 8, 2012

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.

 

 

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