Richardson Family Farms • Rob and Regina Richardson • Vicksburg, MI

Without the sign by the roadside, you'd never know Rob and Regina Richardson have a 4,000-head pig nursery tucked into the trees a few miles from Vicksburg, MI.

Get out. Take a look. Sniff the air: no odor. There are trees, corn and soybeans in the distance. But the sign definitely says there's a hog farm back there somewhere.

Drive a few hundred yards more, curve around the towering trees, and there it is.

As realtors are fond of saying: “What counts is location, location, location.”

Rob Richardson agrees. The saying applies to his hog farm built in 1997, too.

“We carved it out of the woods and left a 50-ft. buffer strip of trees and bushes. The mature trees are a natural biofilter and a visual screen.

“People smell with their eyes,” he says. “They see a hog farm and think it's supposed to smell. It's fine with me if they never realize there's a hog farm back here.”

New to Pork Production

Richardson is a first-generation farmer, son of a lawn and garden implement sales representative, grandson of an ag banker. He started farming in 1975 and went full-time in 1994.

“I started working for a farmer here when I was 9 years old. The ag bug bit me and never let go. After a few years he had me out there working with a Farmall M. It just seemed like a great way of life,” Richardson says.

“Later, when I started farming on my own, I bought his M and I use it to this day as an anchor tractor for traveler irrigation. I also rent his farm.”

Today, Richardson has 2,300 crop acres, much of it devoted to seed corn production, under 19 center-pivot irrigation rigs and four travelers.

He got into pork production when an integrator, 2,400-sow Kazoo Pork, asked if he'd be interested in becoming part of their team.

“They saw we'd done a good job with our facilities and the crop farming. It takes a little higher level of management for a nursery and they thought we could do that. We never had hogs, other than the 40 or 50 at a time our sons had fed out,” he says.

Being new to the hog business wasn't a detriment. The Richardsons built a seven-room, continuous-flow nursery facility. Pigs arrive weighing about 10 lb. and leave weighing about 48 lb., roughly 6-½ weeks later.

The pigs fit perfectly into their row-cropping operation. Working with a consultant, they developed a complete manure management system to utilize the nutrients on cropland.

“We only produce enough nutrients to cover about 10% of our acres, but it saves us about $10,000 per year on starter fertilizer, which we basically eliminated,” he says.

They must be doing something right. In 2004, the nutrients helped the Richardsons grow an irrigated corn crop of 262.6 bu./acre, second in the state class for the National Corn Growers Association yield contest.

The nutrient plan is key to being certified by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). In June 2002, the Richard-sons passed the state's livestock system verification. In September 2003, they passed the farmstead system verification. That helped them win the Michigan Farm Bureau award for Proactive Leadership in Ecology Management in December 2003.

“MAEAP shares my personal philosophy, which is for voluntary incentives for stewardship efforts as opposed to top-down, regulatory efforts. I have a hard time with somebody who wants to regulate my business but isn't as knowledgeable about it as I am. That's why I'm a whole-hearted believer in MAEAP,” Richardson says.

“I'm the first to admit I didn't know all the answers when we started this. I learned a lot. I take the philosophy of having continuous improvement. This is another step in the learning process,” he says.

Richardson learned that little things count big in safety and environmental efforts. For example, his operation wasn't properly disposing of “sharps.” Now they're dropped into a one-gal. windshield washer jug. When it's full, it goes into a five-gal. pail, which is filled with concrete and sent to a landfill.

At the pig nursery, the Richardsons take other steps to reduce odors and improve surrounding air quality. In addition to the buffer zone of trees and the location, all manure is stored in underground concrete tanks that are also covered with concrete. One tank holds 323,000 gal., the other, 134,000 gal. That's enough storage for 120 days. The manure is injected into the cropland, never spread on top of the soil.

“The tanks are 6 in., tongue-in-groove, precast concrete, with concrete pillars, beams and sealed joints. There's a monitoring system around the bottom called a sock tube system. If a tank should ever leak, it will go into the monitoring system,” he says. “These were designed by an ag engineering firm to be a low-cost alternative to monitoring wells.”

Tanks are emptied in late fall, again about April, then again in August on wheat or green bean ground, explains Richardson.

A new swine mortality composting facility designed by Dale Rozeboom, Michigan State University, was just finished to eliminate burying mortalities. The compost will be applied to cropland.

“Composting is a better method than burying because we have shallow groundwater and coarse sandy soils,” he explains.

Being Proactive

Rob and Regina Richardson operate the farm with sons Roy, 20, now a full-time employee; Randy, 17, a high school senior; and Robbie, 14, a freshman. A daughter, Rita, 25, lives and works in Boston.

Most of their neighbors work in town and have no farming background.

“Not many understand production agriculture. Everybody wants to see the guy in coveralls, with 80 acres and a red barn. There aren't many of them around these days,” Richardson says.

To help neighbors understand, the Richardsons held a community-wide open house when the pig nursery opened. More than 400 people showed up, toured the facility, and shared a pig roast.

“Most people's view of farming has not evolved. They don't know about the practical, technological improvements in the industry. We thought it would be good to let the people who were curious about it see what we're doing,” he says.

“I think we have to be proactive. We're trying to take all the steps, use all the common sense techniques available. We're not perfect, but I'd say we're 98% successful. We're doing the best job we can with the best facility possible,” Richardson says.