Four moves bring this multi-talented couple back to their Illinois roots.
Ray and Ellen Hankes are going home. After their respective careers have kept them on the road for the last 12 years, they are returning home to relatives, grandchildren and friends in central Illinois, while continuing their respective consulting careers that will carry them past retirement.
Ray retired last year from a corporate-style career with Tyson Foods, and its predecessor IBP, which took him and Ellen from Illinois across the Midwest to Dakota Dunes, SD, south to Nashville, TN, and then back north to Council Bluffs, IA.
Meanwhile, Ellen worked in a wide variety of executive and consulting positions.
Ellen chuckles because when she married Ray, she thought she was marrying a college professor and their life would include multiple moves. Ray holds a bachelor and a master’s degree in agricultural science and animal science, respectively, and a PhD in meat science and ruminant nutrition. He served as an assistant animal scientist from 1969 to 1974 at the University of Illinois teaching, coaching and working in Extension. They married in 1970.
But from the university job came an opportunity to return to the family hog operation Ellen grew up on, partnering with her father and brother.
Both Ray and Ellen were raised on diversified farming operations, Ray in northern Illinois and Ellen in central Illinois. A neighbor encouraged Ray’s father to enroll him in 4-H, and that turned out to be a huge part of his life. Science and agriculture were the two main tracks he pursued in high school. He was involved in livestock judging teams in high school and in college. While in college, he met Professor Waco Alberts, an intense, Christian man who taught him a lot about life and animals in his role as Ray’s collegiate judging team coach.
Ray also had a deep appreciation for Ellen’s dad, Howard Fugate. When Ray and Ellen joined the farming team in 1974, there were just two buildings on the farm to house pigs indoors. “My brother-in-law Bill Fugate and I would come up with an idea or propose something that was pretty different, and Ellen’s dad would say, ‘go for it,’” Ray recalls. “So we were part of the first wave of folks to move pigs indoors where they were more concentrated.”
The hog operation was called Thrushwood Farms, located at Fairbury, IL. Ray says the partners kept putting up buildings and growing the sow herd through the ’90s.
They started innovative marketing practices in the late ’70s. “We shipped hogs direct to packers without going to the stockyards,” he explains. “Most producers were going through buying stations, or in the case of central Illinois, going to the Peoria stockyards. By going direct, we got less shrink on our hogs and made better use of our transportation.” When the farm didn’t have a full pot load of hogs to market, they would split loads with area producers to fill out the load.
“By selling direct, we also got kill sheets that really gave us a baseline to know what we needed to do better,” Ray explains. “It served as sort of a template that helped make the farm successful.”
Ellen adds they started working with swine consulting veterinarian Ralph Vinson from Oneida, IL, who helped establish production baselines for their farm. “We flew around the country in Ralph’s little airplane giving seminars, mainly on breeding programs,” Ray says. Thrushwood Farms boasted one of the first indoor hand-mating systems in the country.
Part of the hog business was also selling show pigs to buyers from as far away as Oklahoma and Texas, Ray says. “We were part of a group in Illinois who had the first weanling show pig sale in the country, and it is still going 41 years later. It kind of started out being just for Midwest kids, and then we ended up selling show pigs all over the country. I really enjoyed working with those 4-H and FFA members,” he says. Those projects helped develop pork industry leaders.
Over time, the hog business grew to a 1,200-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. It was converted to breed-to-wean with off-site contract finishing, while retaining ownership of the pigs.
“We just had 600 acres, so contract finishing was a way for us to expand and let other producers have the opportunity to get the value out of the manure,” Ellen adds.
In time, Ray took on greater leadership roles. He served as president of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and then president of the National Pork Board. He chaired the committee that initiated the “Pork. The Other White Meat” campaign that was described by Northwestern University as one of the top five advertising campaigns in its day, Ray observes. He also worked with former NPPC executive Orville Sweet, who taught him a lot about agriculture; plus, they shared interests in the cattle business.
Ray was also involved in passage of the Pork Act that led to adoption of the legislative Pork Checkoff.
While Ray became a “front-of-the-room meeting guy,” Ellen was content to be a “back-of-the room meeting gal” — until she met Carlene Wilken of Danforth, IL. Ellen had a teaching degree and had just completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Illinois when Carlene came calling. She encouraged Ellen to join her in getting the women’s national pork group, the Porkettes, organized.
“Carlene inspired us, and I was just amazed she was doing all of this volunteer work for her church and the pork industry and carrying out other farm activities. She also taught me how to manage my time,” Ellen remembers. Ellen held jobs teaching high school home economics at Rantoul and Farmington, and was developing organizational skills that would serve her later in life.
But Carlene’s inspiration led Ellen to seek further involvement in pork producer activities, becoming the first woman president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. In that role, Ellen got a taste of travel, from conducting pork demonstrations at area grocery stores to legislative seminars and national environmental dialogues in Washington, DC.
Ellen was also an integral part of the discussion in making sure pork producers got a fair shake environmentally in the formation of the state’s Livestock Facilities Act.
Ray and Ellen both racked up numerous awards from their industry service, but most enjoyed mentoring students who stayed at their farm on internships and working with youth in the 4-H and FFA programs.
“We showed visiting students that there are lots of opportunities on the farm. It is not just dirty work; there are science and math opportunities to explore,” Ellen relates.
Ray always made a point of emphasizing that the farm was no better than the lowest person on the hierarchy. If the young person who came out after school to wash the farrowing crates didn’t do a good job, then the baby pigs would get scours and die and all the sophisticated breeding programs he devised would be for nought.
That same concept applied to meat science and the meat packing plants he worked in over the years. It was imperative for the workers who came in overnight to wash and sanitize the plant to get everything clean. Otherwise, the plant could not begin operations the next morning.
The Downturn of 1998-99
Eventually, Ray and Ellen became sole proprietors of Thrushwood Farms. “Actually, we had just expanded again in 1998, but we were on the wrong side of things and probably should have done more on the risk management side of the business,” Ray laments.
But the couple agrees that no one in the pork industry foresaw the depth of the hog crisis in 1998 and 1999. The result was they turned over the operation to the bank. They had farmed 25 years to the day, Ellen says.
That led to Ray focusing on business consulting, helping clients like Monsanto and DeKalb Swine Breeders. Meanwhile, Ellen had a position as coordinator of the Illinois Coalition for Animal Agriculture, a startup organization to bring together diverse animal agriculture interests.
The year 1999 was a turning point in their lives as Ray landed a position with IBP inc. as an assistant to the president of Fresh Meats, Gene Leman (honored as a master of the pork industry in the May 15, 2006 issue of National Hog Farmer), at the company’s headquarters in Dakota Dunes, SD. Ellen took a position as executive assistant at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, IA. In 2000, she served as interim executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Association in Sioux Falls.
Ray played a big role in coordinating the business plan for IBP’s entry into the fresh, case-ready beef and pork business, which has grown into a multi-billion-dollar business. In this role, Ray also developed and implemented new technologies for retail products.
The Hankeses continued their travels in 2001, when Ray took a position as complex manager for Tyson Foods at a startup plant in Goodlettsville, TN. Ellen started work as a consultant for Validus Services, based in Des Moines, IA, an environmental firm serving agriculture. Much of her work related to environmental on-farm assessments.
Then in 2004, the closely knit couple returned to the Midwest as Ray became complex manager for Tyson Foods at Council Bluffs, IA. He took on the high-powered responsibility for all aspects of the facility that produced fresh, retail-ready beef and pork products and leading a staff of 1,300 team members and seven departments.
Ellen continued her consulting work with Validus, and in 2006 also became a productivity and organizational consultant for Calahan Solutions Inc., headquartered in Bloomington, IL. She is a certified professional organizer specializing in chronic disorganization.
In 2010, she appeared on an episode of the national television show, “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” and provides on-site and phone consultations, workshops and seminars on the subject.
“It has been a wonderful experience, and we have made many wonderful friends in South Dakota, Tennessee and in Council Bluffs,” Ray says of how they have immersed themselves in their communities.
Ellen has been a long-time member of Toastmasters International and recently persuaded Ray to join. The group helps individuals build self confidence in their speaking abilities.
Ray says that provides invaluable experience as he polishes his skills in the newest phase of his life as a consultant following his retirement from Tyson last year. His client list includes various agricultural businesses.
“The cool thing about us moving four times is I have really been blessed with the opportunity to be involved in education, teaching at the university, pork production, industry organizational activities and corporate business — and life is still unfolding,” Ray points out.
A new chapter for Ray contained some surprises that he has used to fill his time, including woodworking and jewelry making. At the urging of others, he has taken up writing children’s books, and the first book he just completed is a collection of 10 bedtime stories that he hopes will be published in a couple of months. The stories come from bedtime tales he made up and told to granddaughter Rachel and grandson Cody. Titles include “El Stinko the Skunko” and “Nutty the Crafty Squirrel.”
“The ability to do these creative kinds of things has been kind of a balance to a stressful corporate career for Ray,” Ellen explains.
There are no pig stories yet, but Ray promises that the second edition will contain some. The goals of the stories are to include lots of animals, conservation and a life lesson.
The Road Ahead
Ray wants to use his speaking experience to present a positive message about faith and life to agriculture and regional groups when the Hankeses return to Illinois later this year.
Both agree the road ahead will be challenging for pork producers. Ellen, relying on her experience at Validus, foresees food production becoming more transparent, with every aspect of food production from the farm to the plate requiring more auditing and verification. Food safety and animal welfare must be addressed.
With the 12.5% increase in production of pigs per litter in the last nine years, Ray says the pork industry continues to make incredible improvements in efficiency and lowering costs. The challenge is twofold: being cost-competitive with the poultry industry and elevating the pork industry to higher profit margins in very challenging times.
Much work still remains to be done in educating consumers about the growing cost of food and helping them understand that “milk does not come from a can, but from a cow,” he says.
For this former producer and packer, these are unusual times in that both sectors of agriculture are reaping some financial rewards, simultaneously.