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One farmer with big ideas

01/11/2013 @ 4:11pm

In July 1994, I started 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 article.

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 he 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.”

Passion for pigs

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 wannabes” 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 were surprised I would meet with them.”

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