On any given day, if you swing into the Rehmeier hog farm near Augusta, MO, there's a good chance you'll find three generations of the Rehmeier family hard at work — maybe four.
The patriarch of the family, Layton Rehmeier, will be there to greet you. Sons Rick and Dean — the fifth generation — are likely working side-by-side with their sons, Eric and Nick. Some days, Eric's oldest son may be helping his Dad catch pigs for processing, or he and his two siblings are keeping grandpa and grandma busy.
“It's kind of unique,” Rick Rehmeier admits. “When we say family farm — Dad's still involved, Mom still does some of the payroll and bill writing, Dean and our sons are here.”
The farm that serves as the hub of Rehmeier Farms, Inc., was settled by Rick's great, great grandfather, who, with a brother, immigrated from Germany and bought a nearby tract of land in the mid-1850s. That generation and the next were typical farmers for the times — a few pigs, a few cows, hay, corn and grain.
About a hundred years and three generations later, the Rehmeier's steered their farming enterprise toward dairying, selling the last of the hogs when Layton joined the army and headed for Korea. The dairy enterprise thrived from 1950 to 1966, when Layton decided: “There has to be a better way to make a living than milking cows.”
Their quality herd of Holsteins was dispersed and 50 Duroc-Yorkshire crossbred gilts were brought in. “Dad actually started the ‘modern’ hog farm,” Rick explains. “He was one of the founding members of the St. Charles County Pork Producers Association.”
From that meager beginning, the hog operation began its slow and steady growth. The milk house was converted for farrowing with 16 crates installed. A few years later, 16 Smidley farrowing huts were purchased.
Rick graduated from a two-year animal science program at the University of Missouri in 1976, returned to the farm, and the following year a new, 42-crate farrowing barn was built. The sow herd grew to 250 sows.
Younger brother, Dean, too, graduated from the two-year animal science program. In 1981, the brothers partnered up to purchase a 150-sow operation near the Missouri River bottomland and formed the Rehmeier Bros. partnership.
Time marched on, and families and farming goals grew. The first confinement, breeding-gestation barn was built in 1995. In 1997, another new farrowing barn was added and the sow herd increased to 500 sows.
In 2003, an uncle decided to slow down a bit, so his 500-sow, farrow-to-finish facility was rented, building Rehmeier's sow herd up to 1,000 sows.
“He was getting close to retirement age, my son was out of college and we knew more boys wanted to come home, so we needed to expand,” Rick explains. The hog facility and 120 acres of farm ground was purchased in 2006.
Rehmeier Farms, Inc. row crop and pork production is currently spread in three directions from the home farm — 10 miles north and south and 3 miles west. Sows are farrowed at the home farm and the uncle's farm, but all sows are bred at a central breeding-gestation facility. A small, on-farm boar stud provides maternal and terminal line semen.
In addition, the uncle's farm has 2,900-head finishing capacity, and the 150-sow farm in the Missouri River bottomland has been converted to a 700-800-head, wean-to-finish unit. The home farm has 1,500-head finishing spaces and another 600-head finisher is rented.
All pork production is managed by Rehmeier family members, including two brother-in-laws who watch after off-site finishing, and two employees who have been around long enough to be considered almost family.
“Dad hired David Engemann in 1976 when I went off to college, but he told him, ‘we probably won't need you when Rick comes home,’” Rick explains. “Dad added a few more sows, Dean went to college and again, Dad reminded Dave, ‘we probably won't need you when Dean comes back to the farm.’ That was 35 years ago, and Dave is still working for us.” Another employee has been with the family for 28 years.
Production has grown to 20,000 hogs annually, with some additional feeder pigs sold when production is especially good. The main farm — 600 acres, 200 tillable — sits in St. Charles County, on the edge of the urban rim northwest of St. Louis, just 45 minutes from the city's airport.
Active in the Industry
Rick Rehmeier has taken the lead in representing the family corporation at the state and national level. Having worked his way up through county and state offices, he recently completed a six-year stint on the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) board of directors. He chaired the NPPC budget and the Pork PAC committees, and currently serves on the National Pork Board's environmental committee. Brother Dean served on the county board and as president.
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“Somebody has got to stay home and do the work, so I was the one who got involved fairly young. I went to my first national meeting in 1985, the year the Pork Act was written, and I've attended every one since,” Rick says proudly. “I've always felt I got more back from my involvement at the state and national level than I put in. It's an opportunity to really get to know the better producers from around the country,” he adds.
A favorite trip was organized by the U.S. Meat Export Federation and the National Pork Board to Belgium, Poland and Russia. “When they were the Communist bloc, they had a lot of big, progressive livestock production. We toured (former) collective farms that were nearly empty — with just a tenth of the space being rented to raise pigs,” he says. “You wouldn't think they would have to deal with the regulations that we do, but it appeared they were dealing with more in many ways.
“Everything is old, but the potential is tremendous,” he continues. “If they get over the collective farming mentality and a new generation of entrepreneurs comes in and sees a profit — or U.S. companies come in — they probably wouldn't have to buy pork from us.”
Rehmeier sees China as a competitor of U.S. pork one day. “They already produce 4-5 times the pork we do, they have the labor force, they have plenty of land and their climate is better than Russia's, so I think they could be a huge competitor,” he says.
Challenges and Concerns
“We've been through these times before, probably worse than right now. People talk about the '80s, but we had it rougher in the '70s when we were just starting out. But, you pay off debt, upgrade machinery, then tighten your belt and ride it out. That's some of the things that I guess corporations and large integrators can't do,” Rehmeier notes.
“Immediately, the biggest challenge is the marketplace. As a family farm, we're losing money on the pigs right now,” he says, noting the sales of soybeans, wheat and timber helps purchase the additional one-third of corn needs for the pigs.
“We have excess corn storage, so we can buy corn during harvest from neighbors. We pay a nickel over the elevator's bid. We had a good year this year, so all of the elevators were full. But we still paid a nickel over — a nickel is cheap at harvest compared to a dollar now,” he proclaims.
With 400 acres of timber, they log off plots about once a generation — every 25 years or so. “It's very profitable. Mostly oak for stave barrels, with the high-quality logs used for veneer,” he explains. “We don't really consider the timber as a cash crop, but it sure is nice when we sell a tract. When managed properly, the logging actually improves the health of the stand.”
Another concern that perhaps isn't given much thought because it hasn't happened in the pork industry — yet — is a disease outbreak that could close borders.
“It's happened in cattle. If we had to close our borders, we'd be in deep do-do in more ways than one,” he stresses. “If that happened, I don't think there would be a rapid recovery effort because it would take a huge liquidation. It would be very painful.”
“I think we still have a great industry and, as a family, we can keep the farm business going here,” Rehmeier philosophizes. “Our concern will come from growth in the area. If we get pushed out, the question is will we be able to relocate 1,000 to 1,500 sows.
“We want to keep growing, so if we can't grow here, we'll continue to look at other farms. None of us wants to leave, but I feel I could go anywhere and make friends. The problem will be trying to pry my wife away from the grandkids,” he says, and smiles.
Then too, there is the issue with gestation stalls. “I'm afraid that any state with a ballot initiative on gestation stalls — if someone stands out front of a Wal-Mart with a petition and asks: ‘Don't you want these animals to be able to turn around?’ — The answer is: ‘good gosh, yes.’ Everyone's going to sign that petition.
“It's going to come, so I guess we can go back to pens. The problem is — people don't understand the aggressive behavior of sows, how nasty they can be to one another. It will add costs to our production. It will take some different management,” he assures.
Market stability and access are other concerns on the horizon. “I used to be able to call three markets, pick the best bid, and deliver the hogs the next morning. Now, if you're not booked two weeks in advance, you might not get space at the plant,” he notes.
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Surprises — Some Good, Some Not
When a question is posed about what has surprised Rehmeier most during his pork production career, caution momentarily sets in, but he soon acknowledges that the forced split of the two industry organizations — NPPC and the Pork Board — came as a surprise. But, he quickly adds: “What pleases me most is now seeing both organizations working together, perhaps better than they have since the separation was mandated.
“I look forward to working in the pork industry, and I hope to retire from it and see my kids and grandkids get into it — if they want to. It's important to approach it with a real business structure and make sure everyone understands where you're at. Sometimes that's hard when it's family. Once in a while you've got to bite your tongue and say, ‘OK, you take care of that however you want to,” he admits.
Reflecting on his chosen profession, Rehmeier says the best advice he can offer his nieces and nephews and other young people is this: “You've got to take time for other activities; don't ruin your life over raising hogs. Work hard, but play hard, too. Be sure to do some other things that you enjoy.”