Just 20 years into his still-young career, Craig Christensen has worn a number of hats. The first, an intern’s hat worn between his junior and senior years in college, was spent supervising seedstock selection. The next, a market researcher for an advertising agency, was followed by that of feedmill manager, human resources, financial and crop management of Highway Farms, two terms as vice president and, then, president of the National Pork Board. Recently, he added restaurateur to his resume.

The summer internship was with swine genetics company Farmer’s Hybrid, where he screened, scored and sorted boars and gilts for sale.

After graduation from Northeast Missouri State University with a double major in animal science and agricultural business, Farmers Hybrid owner Olin Andrews offered him a full-time position. But Christensen wanted to try something new. “I could have gone back home and worked with sows, boars and pigs. I needed something different,” he explains.

Turns out, Andrews also owned a small advertising agency that handled advertising and promotions for the genetics firm and a couple of other small businesses. He was in need of a market research person to help land more accounts, and Christensen got the nod.

“This was before Google, so I spent many hours in the library putting plans together,” Christensen remembers. The efforts paid off. The agency landed the Mycogen Biotech account, a start-up company of former Monsanto scientists. Andrews, having purchased Farmers Hybrid from Monsanto, was familiar with the Mycogen group.

Christensen spent the next two years commuting to the West Coast, down to the Rio Grande area, across to Florida and up and down the East Coast. “I had a blast, learned a lot, worked hard and played hard, and by the time I was 24 years old, I knew I had to do something else,” he says.

This epiphany corresponded with plans to expand Highway Farms’ hog operation. The goal was to expand their 400-sow herd to 1,000 sows. Christensen’s father, Rex, was at the helm of the plan, and his younger brother, Cory, was on board to help oversee construction and management of the hog operation.

“Cory has a passion and a talent for the production side that is far better than I’ll ever be, so my focus was on running the business, the financial and human resources and the crops,” he explains. “The thing that drives me is building the business, the culture and
the philosophy.”

“My father comes from the school of thought that we can build it cheaper and, if not better, then just as good, as anyone. He needed someone to run the feedmill and cropping operations while he and my brother started building, so I thanked Olin (Andrews) for the opportunity and came back home in 1993,” he relates.

 

Growth Begins

The Christensen expansion plan was soon running at full throttle. An in-house construction company was established, including a fully equipped welding shop. A full-time welder was hired to fabricate all of the feeders and gating. Cement forms were built, and another full-time employee assigned the task of pouring all of the slats.

“A cement truck came every morning, and it was his job to make sure the re-rod was positioned right; we had a forklift to stack the slats for curing,” he remembers.

Throughout the next two decades, the Christensens would crank up their small manufacturing department whenever a new building or remodeling project was tackled.

“My grandfather, Paul, was really, really keen on bringing people to the farm to get advice. He spent a lot of time asking questions. Like my grandfather, Rex has a knack and a vision for designing things himself. He is a ferocious reader, and between his contacts and his ability, he was able to design and engineer our growing hog operation. For the bigger projects, he would bring someone in to help with the design,” Christensen adds.

During the early expansion, the elder Christensen found a four-story, commercial-grade feedmill that nobody seemed to want and bought it.

“We hired the two maintenance guys at the mill to help disassemble it, mark every piece, move it 60 miles and reassemble it on our site. It took scores of truckloads and over a year to rebuild,” Christensen relates.

“Why would anyone even attempt to do that?” he asks, and answers: “Because, for my father, it was the joy and challenge of building things. The more he could build, the more he could design, the more enjoyment he had.

“Although it’s not a big deal today, we had the largest-capacity mill in Boone County, which gave us the competitive advantage of getting a lot of feed out in a pretty efficient, economic manner,” he says.

To free-up his father and brother for construction, Craig and his uncle, Roger, managed the accounting, human resources and financial management of the operations.

In the span of about 15 years, Highway Farms purchased 400-sow, 600-sow and 1,400-sow sites. “You’ll notice that we were buying oddball-sized operations, and the reasons were because they were close. We wanted to grow, but we didn’t want to run all over the country to do it,” he explains.

Some of the sites were converted to nursery-to-finish production. When all of the remodeling, revamping and restructuring was complete, they had 3,500 sows on three sites. It is now a parity-segregation system, with one site devoted solely to gilts and first-parity sows.

After their first parity, females are bred back and moved to either the 1,100-sow or 1,400-sow site. Christensen believes parity segregation helps keep the sow farms running at capacity, plus it allows them to flow all gilt-farrowed pigs to a single site. The other two sow farms keep the rest of the wean-to-finish barns stocked.

“With all gilts at one farm, we can design and conform to a smaller, younger animal with standardized stalls, vaccinations and pig movement.

“By not bringing in gilts, the Parity 2-and-higher sow farms flow better. Their farrowing rates are higher, they pass on more immunity to their pigs, and the pigs are a little thriftier,” he explains. “It allows us to commingle pigs from the two sow farms that are the same age and type, which makes our pig flows better.”

The three breeding-gestation farms are within five miles of each other, and there is just one other 400-sow farm in the vicinity. He acknowledges that one, 3,400-sow farm with pigs flowing to 2,400-head, wean-to-finish barns would be better, but that’s not an option.

 

Getting Involved

When Christensen first returned to the farm, he was recruited to sit in on a NPPC focus group session aimed at standardizing hog production records and reports.

“I was really impressed with the progressiveness of the people in the room,” he says. “They were proactive and that’s what attracted me.”

Like many of his peers, he joined the county pork producer’s group, did some grilling, got to know the staff at the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) and found himself making more and more trips to Des Moines for committee meetings.

When the state nominating committee put out the call for candidates for seats on the state and national boards, IPPA Executive Director Rich Degner asked Christensen to consider running for the National Pork Board. “I very distinctly remember him saying, ‘chances are you won’t win, but it will get your name out there so when you want to run again in 2-3 years, people will know who you are.’” Christensen saw that as a good plan and with the blessing of his father and brother, tossed his hat in the ring.

“I liked the pork industry, but I knew I wasn’t going to come up with a new and better way to feed sows. My expertise wasn’t there, but I liked listening to the different issues and wrestling with what the priorities should be and coming up with solutions,” he explains.

The voting didn’t quite go as anticipated. Christensen was elected.

That was in 2000, the year of the pork checkoff referendum and also the year he and his wife, Carol, were married.

Christensen attended just his second National Pork Industry Forum in March 2001, shortly after Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman had terminated the checkoff.

It was a very tumultuous period for all commodity checkoff programs, including a challenge to the constitutionality of the mandatory pork checkoff. The challenge wound its way through various courts of appeals. Eventually, the constitutionality of commodity checkoffs landed in the U.S. Supreme Court with the Beef Promotion and Research Act serving as the test case. The Supreme Court justices ruled that it and similar programs were, in fact, constitutional, but greater scrutiny of the programs by USDA was to follow.

The fallout in the pork industry included a directive to definitively separate the programs and staffs of the two key industry organizations — the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

Christensen felt the division acutely, with friends and mentors in both organizations.

The sea change surrounding the checkoff swept Christensen into a fast track to the Pork Board’s officer corps, being elected vice president in 2001. He served two terms under Pork Board President Hugh Dorminy as the split between the two industry organizations was negotiated and set in motion.

“With the help of Hugh (Dorminy), Past President John Kellogg and others, they coached me to spend a lot of time listening, not a lot of time talking,” he remembers.

For Christensen, redefining the role of the Pork Board was comparable to setting up a new company. “We needed to hire a new CEO. We had to move some programs over to NPPC, while others were retained by the Pork Board. We had to try to place the right people in the right positions, while making sure the checks and balances were in place and the separation was actually occurring. We had to put everything in place, from employee benefits to performance reviews, to the organizational structure. We needed a CEO who could put together a team to run the business while the Pork Board was focused on maintaining the checkoff,” he recounts.

“I think we had to work a lot harder to get the same things done during the transition. Every producer I worked with wanted both groups to succeed. We were all trying to be sure we saved the programs, saved the employees,” he recalls.

Looking back, Christensen is confident that their decisions have served the industry well. “I feel good that both groups are doing a lot. I think it forced us to be very efficient. It also forced us to communicate with producers to make sure they knew their checkoff dollars were invested in good programs and we were doing what we said we were going to do.”

Christensen remains active on Pork Board trade and strategic planning committees. Occasionally, he entertains the possibility of running again for some industry position — perhaps after his 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter are out of school. “It would be nice to take another shot at it with more career experiences to draw on,” he notes.  

 

The Lucky Pig

In the meantime, the Christensens’ most recent start-up endeavor capitalizes on his business acumen and wife Carol’s training and experience in the foodservice industry.  They purchased a struggling restaurant in nearby Ogden, following the lead of his father and cousin, who had previously bought the local hardware store and an auto repair shop, because they wanted to keep those services in the community.

“There are a few things that a community desperately needs to stay viable  — churches, a grocery store, a gas station, an auto repair shop, health care providers — and, especially, a restaurant, because it gives people a gathering place where they can meet and have fun and enjoy a nice meal. I believe it’s a component that makes a community more vibrant,” he explains.

“I took a page from my grandfather and my dad. I talked to about 35 restaurant owners, managers and people who finance restaurants. Of those 35 people, not one of them recommended that we do it. But, I heard enough that I thought we should give it a shot,” he explains. “We’re still in the start-up phase, so there are still a lot of things to do.”

They refurbished the restaurant and christened it “The Lucky Pig.”

The Lucky Pig was the first name they jotted down when they began brainstorming what they wanted to do. “We wanted it to be a fun place; we knew we would need a little luck; we knew it would take a lot of time, but we didn’t want it to take away from the hog operation,” he explains. “We tried for three months to come up with something better and even polled people in the community. The Lucky Pig stuck. Now, nine months into it, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.”

He describes the menu as “comfortable, with a lot of pork, beef, fish and chicken, but we want to make it a pork-centered business,” he explains.

“The restaurant business isn’t much different than the pork business — narrow margins, long hours. You have to watch your input and labor costs. You’re basically managing the labor to get good production,” he notes.

“After 35 people told me not to do it, I promised my wife that if at any time she says, ‘that’s it, I’m done,’ we’ll put it up for sale. She’s only done that four times, so far,” he grins.

 

What Lies Ahead?

“The consumers’ influence on the production place — not the marketplace — concerns me most,” Christensen shares. “I still think the masses want good, safe food of good quality, and they trust us to produce it. But, the activists on the fringe are very savvy, and they will keep coming up with campaigns to push us to where we don’t need to go. The gestation stall issue will be one of the many issues we have to deal with in the next five years.”

Christensen likens the sow housing challenge to the move to confinement housing in the ’80s and ’90s. “Once someone figures out the best sow housing system, the industry can adapt pretty fast,” he observes. “If I was 60 years old and had gone from old dairy barn lots, moving from gestation pens to stalls where I can work easier without getting my knees beat up, I wouldn’t want to go back to the old ways either. But, if I am able to hire a workforce and train them to do that, I think we can manage it.”

Transitioning to his philosophy on hiring, he continues, “If you make the workplace attractive, pay them fairly and treat them right, you can attract people to the industry.”

Highway Farms has 14 full-time employees in the hog operation, a couple of maintenance and crop employees, and 10-12 part-time people who help out when needed. Ten of the 30 employees have been with Highway Farms for 10 years, two for 30 years.

“Our business wouldn’t be where it is today without those 30 people, they are very important to us,” Christensen exclaims. Several came from factory work or just out of high school. Three came from larger, integrated production systems and enjoy the smaller philosophy.

One of the biggest selling points is flex time. “We don’t have hard and fast rules that employees have to show up at a specific time in the morning and stay until a certain time in the afternoon. Our rule is — the job has to get done in a timely manner. If someone wants to show up at 5 a.m. so they can leave at 2 p.m. because they want to see a son or daughter run track, we encourage that,” he says. “Not to sound hokey, but when I say we are a family farm, I want it to mean it’s everyone’s family. We want their families to be important to them.”

 

A ‘Cool’ Industry

“Our industry is made up of a lot of educated, proactive, business-minded people who are willing to take their turn and serve the industry. That’s pretty cool,” he declares. “The encouragement and support I received from my father and brother to become more active in the industry allowed me to do that. They have been the most consistent and important influences in my life, in work ethic and my ability and eagerness to learn. They are two of the most intelligent people I have had the good fortune to have nearby.”

The ongoing creative process and willingness to experiment is one of the real strengths of pork producers, Christensen believes, and he encourages bright young men and women to consider a career in the pork industry.

“If they are interested in production, with the way production systems are set up now, and considering all of the challenges and changes we see on the horizon, I think it is going to be a pretty dynamic industry in the next few years. It’s certainly not going to be boring!” he declares.

“You will have the opportunity to make a difference in a dynamic and progressive industry. If you are good at what you do, whether it is in production or something else, there is unlimited growth potential. There will be a lot of changes and challenges in the next 10 years, and that means there will be opportunities to do something pretty neat in this industry,” he assures.