Growing up at Sand Springs, IA (east of Monticello), Al Wulfekuhle developed a passion for pigs at an early age. He spent a lot of time helping his dad on their 90-sow, farrow-to-finish hog farm, but it was really a summer spent working for a large farmer in the area who had multiple employees and newer equipment and facilities that piqued his interest. This was an eye-opener to the possibilities a career in agriculture could hold for him.
After high school, Al enrolled at Iowa State University, but only lasted one winter quarter. “My dad purchased a hog farm for me to run after completing college, but I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in a classroom when I could be farming,” Al says. He also convinced his girlfriend, Kathy, to join him and pursue the dream of farming.
“I was just 19 and Kathy had just turned 20 when we were married, and we moved to an old farmhouse in 1979,” Al recalls. “All we had was a card table and chairs and a couch with no legs, but we did splurge and take some wedding money to buy a brand-new waterbed to sleep on.”
They bought the hog farm from Al’s dad almost at the peak of the land prices in the early ’80s and had to scrape along for awhile when prices crashed. When they recovered in the mid-’80s, the couple started hiring employees and renting buildings from the neighbors. “We had hogs in open lots with cornstalks for bedding on 4-5 different farms. That’s how we started expanding, putting pigs on other people’s sites in open lots, where people were starting to get out of pork production.” By using isolated lots, he was able to segregate his early weaned pigs to have better health, a concept he still strongly believes in today.
Birth of G&W Pork
In 1989, Al and Kathy joined with Curt and Cindy Gentz to form a corporation called G&W Pork, which started as a 100-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. “Curt was one of my first employees and he wanted to get into production, so I said we will start this corporation together,” Al explains. Curt left for a few years (1993 to 1997) but returned and is now the production manager for G&W Pork.
In 1994, Al decided to build his first 1,200-head finishing barn with six rooms of 200 head. Two lenders turned him down for financing the construction. “I remembered my local veterinarian, Dr. Don Bowden, knew the owner of BankIowa in Independence, IA, where he was banking. He went to the bank with me and told the loan officer that he needed to give me a loan,” Al recalls. It was a joint loan with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). “Sometimes all it takes is someone established in the business to vouch for you. Dr. Bowden did that for me.”
Bowden called Al in 1996 about a 900-sow farm having breeding problems, which Bowden said he couldn’t figure out, and asked Al if he would help consult on the farm. They met with the owners, and the pair ended up contract-managing the farm together. The new farm manager they hired did an excellent job, so the next year Al asked him to join him in starting a company to manage other farms. This was the birth of CNI Consulting; CNI stands for Constant-Never-Ending-Improvement.
While Al’s partner moved on after a year, CNI continued on, contract-managing seven different farms over the ensuing years, hiring and training the labor and setting up the records. While no longer providing contract management services, CNI’s records bureau continues keeping MetaFarms sow and wean-to-finish production records for eight farms.
New Horizons Pork
In 1999, after the hog crisis of 1998, the owners of one of the farms CNI had previously managed approached Al about buying their 900-sow, farrow-to-feeder pig farm. “I looked at this as an opportunity to take all I learned over the years and apply it,” Al recalls. “First I went to people I highly respected in the industry and asked them to join me. My new partners and I decided to name the company New Horizons Pork.” For two of Al’s new partners, this was their entry into the hog business. One was his feed salesman and the other a manager of a farm Al had contract-managed in the past. Both helped Al immensely and he wanted to return the favor. Together, Al and the partners grew New Horizons Pork into the very successful 3,800-sow, farrow-to-finish operation that it is today.
To pull back some, Al just recently divested his holdings in New Horizons Pork. “My plan now is to slow down a bit and focus on growing and improving G&W Pork and our crop farming operation. This is really where my heart is.”
Place for Independent Farmers
In this age of corporate hog farming, Al likes to think there is a place for the small independent farmer who, just as he did, needs a helping hand along the way.
“I think there is still a place for the young guy who wants to get into the hog business and perhaps build a contract finishing barn, or even own a share of a farrow-to-finish operation.”
Several current growers and employees have needed Al’s willing help starting out. He has guided them on loan applications, from filling out a balance sheet — “because for a lot of them this is their first balance sheet” — to working on cash flow and developing their first manure management plan. Sometimes Al has rented ground or owned buildings with them, but mostly it’s just encouragement and guidance.
These growers realize that the guidance is similar to what Al got when he started out. He stresses to them that owning your own farming business can offer a huge benefit in taxes, building barns and depreciating assets, reinvesting and building net worth. “I tell the guys if they start with $10,000, grow it 15% per year, in less than 17 years they will be a millionaire! All they have to do is look around at some of the other guys to see the proof. The big thing is you’ve got to get smart and work hard, invest in yourself and in your business,” Al says.
Keys to Good Employees
Al says: “The good thing about the guys who work with me is that they are mostly local [to northeast Iowa], which I think is a key to having a long-term employee — they need ties to an area and want to live in the area.”
The other common factor seems to be guys who want to be more than just employees. They want to farm. “That is where I kind of fit in,” he says.
Al has provided a home for five of his current employees, who at one time or another, lived in a house on one of his farms. “People tell me you can’t afford to own a farmhouse, and sometimes I think you can’t afford not to, because these guys need a place to live, and you build a lot of loyalty and trust by providing them your house.” The house has been remodeled several times to keep it nice for employees.
Most of Al’s employees and growers have worked with FSA and the same local bank, BankIowa, that helped Al get started. This isn’t a coincidence. “I’ve steered the guys this way. I tell them this is how I did it; you can, too.
“Lon Janachek at FSA and the people at BankIowa want to help beginning farmers, and they know I’m trying to do the same. We have a pretty good trust level. Just as Dr. Bowden went to the bank to vouch for me, I’ve done the same.”
After completing one year on the job, all employees earn shares in G&W Pork, which forms part of their compensation package. “I’m a firm believer that the quicker an employee feels the pride of ownership, the better long-term employee he will become,” Al says.
By that time, Al knows who is going to stick around. It’s not always an easy “marriage,” with some jostling for more pay and better equipment. But when employees get to see the balance sheet, which he shares with all of them quarterly, they know if profits were earned or not, and whether the chances are good for better benefits — and perhaps the purchase of a new farm pickup.
Al’s business works almost like a cooperative, but employees and growers get to keep their independence. “Our arrangement is how farmers get bigger by working together. Some of us share planting and harvesting equipment, and if I need a break from the combine for a day, somebody else will run it and I can do something else,” he says.
“This makes getting along huge,” Al says, because sharing equipment and workload means a lot of compromising will be necessary to get the job done.
Contractual building arrangements differ, Al says. Some barns are owned by growers, some Al owns and some are owned by G&W Pork. The constant is that the pigs are all owned by the corporation.
Growers can build different sizes and types of wean-to-finish barns to fit their financing and land base, as long as they have the same humidistats and power inlets for uniform ventilation, and the same feeder types, Al explains.
Growers have the independence to excel or get it wrong in their facilities, and sometimes Al or production coordinator Curt Gentz has to assist them in getting it right. Watch what the pig tells you to know if you’re right or wrong, Al says.
For Al, it’s been the best of both worlds. He readily admits helping others succeed is the reason he’s been successful himself. “I’ve been able to surround myself with very loyal employees, partners and growers. That’s what’s nice about being an independent producer. You get to choose the people you work with in a flexible working environment. I’m really proud of the guys that I work with and what we have been able to accomplish together,” Al says.
G&W Pork today consists of three sow farms totaling 1,500 sows divided up among three locations. Pigs are commingled into area wean-to-finish barn to be fed out.
Here are the current employees and growers and a few comments on how they started working with Al.
Dave Willie: Dave manages the automated feedmill owned by G&W Pork; works on feed budgeting and records feed sales; hauls market hogs in G&W Pork trucks; and custom-feeds hogs in two, 600-head, wean-to-finish barns that he built for G&W Pork.
Dave hails from nearby Manchester, IA, and attended Kirkwood Community College at Cedar Rapids, IA. He answered an ad that Al ran in a newspaper and was interested in moving closer to home. Al provided a house for Dave and wife Becky to live in, shared crop equipment and rented ground with him his first year. Dave now owns 160 acres he purchased from his dad and uncle. He got his start financially through FSA.
Curt Gentz: Overall production supervisor, Curt attended Ellsworth Community College and Al provided him an internship after school. “I have had a lot of Al’s and Jerome’s [Al’s dad] help.” He was Al’s first attempt at helping someone get started in farming. As stated, they started G&W Pork together, and Al provided a house for Curt and wife Cindy and they worked side by side every day.
Curt, from south of Masonville, IA, got help with financing from FSA and custom-feeds hogs in two wean-to-finish barns he built for G&W Pork. Cindy runs the MetaFarms records bureau. They own 160 acres purchased from Curt’s grandparents and rent additional ground.
Nick Leibold: Nick who lives at Strawberry Point, IA, was renting a 360-sow, farrow-to-wean site and selling weaner pigs when Al met him in 2008, at a time when weaners were selling well below the cost of production. Nick was in the process of liquidating his sow herd and getting out of pork production. In a few weeks, Nick and Al reached an agreement for G&W Pork to buy out his herd and take over his lease. Working together, a couple of years later they bought the 40-acre farm and hog facilities. Nick and his wife, Meghan, were able to buy a nice home that was part of this farm.
Now Nick operates a DNA gilt multiplier, supplying gilts to G&W Pork and three other sow farms. “Al’s help has meant everything to me because I have gotten to continue to enjoy raising hogs.” He also crop-farms with his dad and rents a few acres on his own.
Ryan Bartachek: Ryan was a neighbor kid who did an internship with G&W after attending Kirkwood Community College to learn about hog farming, as he was not raised on a hog farm. He started working for Al about six years ago, and four years ago Al helped Ryan get into ownership. He sold Ryan and his wife, Audrey, part of his home farm consisting of 45 acres, a 500-sow, breed-to-wean facility, grain bins, machine shed and his nice home. Al and Kathy then moved to Quasqueton, IA.
Acquiring the operation allows Ryan to live and work near both his and Audrey’s parents, and crop-farm part-time with his dad. He got his start financially with FSA.
Mike Robinson: Mike started working with G&W right out of high school. Mike has done a lot of different jobs for G&W over the years. Currently, he trucks all of the bean meal, backs up Dave Willie at the feedmill, custom-feeds hogs in two, 800-head, wean-to-finish barns he built for G&W Pork and manages a 2,400-head, wean-to-finish site. He crop-farms a few hundred acres, sharing equipment with a neighbor. He got his start financially through BankIowa.
Sean Baragary: Together Sean and Al bought a 1,600-head, wean-to-finish site with a nice house and machine shed. Sean now manages the G&W Pork North sow farm and a 2,400-head, wean-to-finish site. Sean went to Kirkwood Community College.
Steve Copenhaver: Steve custom-feeds for G&W Pork in buildings he purchased and built. He purchased a farm from his mom and rents additional ground. He started working with G&W Pork when his banker recommended he give Al a call. Steve attended Iowa State University.
Ryan Baragary: Al hired Ryan in high school, and after attending Kirkwood Community College he has worked at G&W Pork ever since. Ryan is currently managing G&W’s gilt developer unit and farrowing at the South sow farm.
Kori Jones: Kori worked for Nick Leibold in high school, went to Kirkwood Community College and started working full time for G&W Pork a year ago. He helps run G&W Pork North sow farm and a 2,400-head, wean-to-finish site. Kori just purchased a house and acreage by the sow unit.