Legacy of service
There are only 24 hours in a day but, taking a look at the Cook family’s schedule, you’d think they’ve discovered how to squeeze a little more time out of the clock. In addition to their family farm in Winthrop, Iowa, the Cooks have dedicated time and effort to serve with a variety of community and industry groups. “Service to the community is important,” says Aaron Cook.
“We are fortunate we have been able to serve, and we have neighbors who also step up and serve. It’s what makes our community great.”
Building a Business
Aaron and Trish Cook operate CBL Farms, which has 1,200 sows and produces approximately 32,000 weaned pigs per year. They also have about 200 acres of corn. Along with their three children, Holly, Spencer, and Kirby, the Cooks epitomize what it means to serve.
The couple attended Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Aaron’s degree is in agricultural studies, while Trish received an accounting degree. After graduating in 1994, Aaron joined his father (Kenny), uncle (Alan), and grandfather (Ray) on the farm. Trish secured a job off the farm. During those first few years, the Cooks and another family joined forces to start their own sow unit to supply both farms.
“It was a great way for both of us to build equity,” Aaron says. After about six years, the two families were ready to expand, so the Cooks sold their shares and built another sow farm.
Soon after, Trish joined the operation full-time. “We added the feed mill, and that became my responsibility,” she says. “Our family was growing, so it was the perfect time.”
With three young children, the family operation became a whirlwind of activity day and night. “We often found ourselves working at night to catch up,” Aaron says. “The kids definitely kept us busy.”
Aaron’s grandfather passed away recently, and he is thankful he had the opportunity to work alongside two generations for more than 25 years.
Building a Legacy
Service to the community and the pork industry has always been a part of the Cooks’ farm life. It started as their operation was getting on its feet.
“We joined the Buchanan County Pork Board right after we were married,” Aaron says. “We had a great time and met producers from the area and made lifelong friends.”
Aaron served on the local school board for 14 years; he was president for part of the time. “I really enjoyed my time on the school board,” he says. “We built a new elementary school and completed a major upgrade to our high school. These projects benefited our school system and our community.”
For more than a decade, Aaron has been involved with Camp Courageous, a camp for people with disabilities and has served on the camp’s board. He’s also held several leadership positions with the family’s church, 4-H, and FFA.
“It’s been important for Trish and me to be involved,” Aaron says. “It’s important not only as a producer, but as a community member. We are fortunate we have a strong group of volunteers in our community.”
Trish currently serves as vice president of resources and northeast region director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). She is a 24-year member of the Buchanan County Pork Producers and has also served as a county board member. In addition, she has helped with 4-H and FFA, served on several church boards, and taught Sunday school. She’s also served on the board of the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.
In 2009, the Cooks were named Master Pork Producers, and in the following year named IPPA Pork All-Americans. They have also received the Wergin Good Farm Neighbor Award. “Because the work our neighbors do in our community is just as strong, we were honored to receive that award,” Aaron says.
Whether hosting elementary school students or a Facebook Live tour of the farm, the Cooks are passionate about what they do, and they aren’t afraid to be a face of pork production. “We also hold annual events on the farm that allow the community to meet pork producers and get to know what we do and why we do it,” Trish says. “We think getting in touch with not only the community but also our customers is incredibly important.”
Aaron says the message has evolved through the years.
“When we first started working with the pork board, a lot of our messages centered around encouraging people to eat more pork or how to cook it differently,” he says. “Now it’s incredibly important to explain to people how we operate and why we operate the way we do. With more consumers further removed from the farm, it’s critical we get our message out.”
Service is part of the family heritage. Holly served as Iowa Pork Queen in 2016, and Spencer served as a Youth Ambassador for the Iowa Pork Producers Association in 2018. Holly graduated with a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State; Spencer is studying agricultural business at Iowa State. Kirby plans on studying agriculture at Iowa State in 2022.
While they aren’t always comfortable putting their names and faces out to a wide audience, they acknowledge it’s part of what they need to do to promote their industry. “It’s not always easy to do an interview. That’s not something in our comfort zone,” Aaron says. “If we don’t do it, who will? We view it as kind of a responsibility as producers.”
Their story includes how they use manure to fertilize the corn crop that will eventually become feed for their pigs. It also includes how producers use cover crops and conservation to ensure their farms are sustainable.
“We want people to know we live on the farm where we raise our pigs,” Aaron says. “We have hosted community members, as well as county and state officials, to walk our farm and learn how we operate. We are willing to share our story with the community.” Looking to the Future
Right now, we don’t have any plans to add to the operation,” Aaron says. “It’s a good fit for us. With as volatile as the markets have been in recent years, expansion is not in our near-term plans.”
Labor is also a prime concern. “We have four excellent employees, and finding additional workers is difficult,” he says. The couple have hopes their children will join the operation someday, at which time they would revisit the entire operation’s structure. “We want them to make their own decisions before we go down that road,” Aaron says.
The Cooks have devoted decades to telling their story. Their advice to producers, young and old? “Be willing to get involved and share your story, because today’s consumer wants to see how their food is produced and who is doing it,” Trish says.