A Life with Swine: One farmer’s plan for staying high on the hog

Everyone loves hearing that the pork they ate was once a happy hog. But what about the farmer?

Chad Rensing is a 37-year-old, second-generation hog farmer. Things have never been easy on the 300-acre farm in New Douglas, Ill., that his parents established some 40 years ago. But 2012 was especially tough.

He watched a record-breaking drought dry up his corn and drive up feed prices. According to Rensing, for the first three quarters of 2012, he paid an average of $380 to $400 per ton of feed. At the end of July, prices skyrocketed to $660 per ton – a 65- to 74-percent increase. Contending with increased production costs, Rensing and other hog farmers around the country began liquidating their herds, resulting in a supply glut in the pork market. “In September, the market dropped off,” Rensing said. “In a month, I lost a substantial value in both cash and equity. We’re bleeding in a bad way.” From the end of 2011 to the first three quarters of 2012, Rensing received an average of $50 to $55 for a weaned pig. In September, the price plummeted to $4. Feeder pigs went from an average of $55 to $65 to an astonishing $12.
Faced with the recent heavy slump in hog prices, Rensing has to compete with deep-pocketed corporate meat producers that are capable of withstanding long periods of negative margins, hoping that smaller operations like Rensing’s will cease production first. “We’re getting our butts kicked by corporations, and they are not stopping,” Rensing commented. “Corporations are sealing the fate of the indies.”

Other events have hardened Rensing, shaping him into the sharp-talking, matter-of-fact farmer that he’s become after running the business for the last 18 years. He remembers the pushback he faced from some members of the Slow Food-St. Louis chapter in 2009 after being included in a Sauce article on the relationships between chefs and farmers. He was spotlighted with Amy Zupanci, chef-owner of the now-defunct Fond in Edwardsville, Ill., who regularly purchased his pork and beef. The two were criticized by Slow Food -St. Louis for some of Rensing’s farming practices, including his use of probiotics on his hogs.

He remembers litigation that his family endured in the late 1990s. Reticent to talk of the long-ago legal matter, he told me it had to do with the poor diet of his hogs, explaining that the animals’ diet was formulated by nutritionists in the meat industry. “The way they were designing their diets, it was horrible. There’s been times we couldn’t even eat our own pork off of this farm. Quality was horrible,” he lamented. “December 17, 1998. That was the date we changed their feed.” The high-quality diet of his hogs is now a major source of pride for Rensing, although the biggest smile you can eek out of the tall, lanky farmer is a slight upturn at the mouth. “I will go up against anybody on meat quality,” he said with conviction.

Drought, herd liquidation, corporate competition, probiotics, litigation.

Rensing has had much to contend with, yet the daily job of caring for animals remains. And for all intents and purposes, he’s a solo operation. “My parents – my dad is 71 and my mom is 67 – that’s my working staff.” Then there’s the task of getting the product to market, having a buyer for all that pork, erstwhile hoping that somehow he can eke out a living wage for his efforts. Work-life balance? Rensing, who works from dawn “until I’m done,” would likely scoff at the life coach catchphrase. “It’s been 18 years since I had a vacation and 16 [years] without a day off,” he stated on more than one occasion. “I miss a lot of time with my daughter.”

Farmers have always juggled the job of trying to satisfy the needs of eater, eaten and self. But never has Rensing’s livelihood been so difficult.

“I think the American consumer has watched the pig man get destroyed,” Rensing said. “One thing they say to me about me: ‘This guy is a hog man.’ We have forgotten that we don’t have to be complicated to be good hog men.”

So what is his modern hog farm like? And what kind of role does a hardworking, good-intentioned hog farmer like Rensing play within our local food community? To answer these questions, I first needed to visit the farm.

Rain and thunderstorms swept through Madison County the day that I made the 40-mile drive from St. Louis out to the Rensing farm. Pelted with sheets of cold rain and blasts of high wind as I stepped out of my car, I was admittedly relieved when Rensing led the way to a series of large buildings where we’d be dry from the storm and away from chilly gusts.

“Don’t mind the squealing there,” he said to me as we entered the gestation house, filled with dozens of pregnant sows that began to snort and grunt from the interruption. “They just know you’re different,” he joked.

Rensing currently has 270 productive sows. At any given time most are either pregnant or farrowing (giving birth), with roughly 10 percent of the herd open or mating. Due to the fallout in the hog market, Rensing recently decreased his herd size from 300. As a result of the reduction, he’ll soon begin removing some of the gestation stalls, which will give each sow more square footage in her pen.

Once a sow shows utter development, she is moved to the farrowing room, where she’ll give birth to a litter of anywhere between two and 22 piglets. Rensing’s operation is outfitted with a total of four farrowing rooms. Each holds 24 crates – though not all are currently in use – in which mama and babies remain for three weeks while the piglets nurse on their mother’s milk.

We entered one of the farrowing rooms. It was quiet and still, with a warm light set low in each crate to provide extra warmth for the newborns. As I held a pink piglet born less than 24 hours earlier, Rensing motioned to the farrowing crates with a newer model of bow bar running atop each crate. The bar gives the piglets safe access to their mothers’ milk while preventing the sow from accidentally stepping on or crushing them. It also protects the farmer from a sow who becomes aggressive in defending her litter.

Compared to the hushed environment of the farrowing room, the nursery was loud, with rambunctious barrows (castrated males) and gilts (females who have not produced a litter) busy establishing a pecking order, eating and vying for space.

Rensing’s hogs are fed a diet of corn and soybean meal. The young pigs are given fortified pellet feed, to which Rensing mixes powdered antibiotics because the pigs’ immune systems get suppressed after being weaned from their mother’s milk, explained Rensing, clarifying that the amount of antibiotics added is minor at six pounds of antibiotics per every 8,000 pounds of feed. “Everybody’s got this perception that we’re just taking and dumping it in by the bagful,” he said. “That’s not the case.”

At about three months of age, when a pig reaches 75 pounds, it’s moved to the finishing house, the last stage in the life of a hog raised for food. Rensing’s finishing house is covered and with a concrete floor. Similar to the gestation house, four-foot concrete barrier walls make up the perimeter while the remainder is open, letting in outdoor air. His six breeds of hogs – Landrace, Durok, York, Hampshire, Berkshire and Chester White – remain at the finishing house until they reach about 240 pounds, or six months old. At that point, they’re loaded on a truck, headed for slaughter.

“Everything has changed over time,” Rensing said when we gathered post-tour in his office area as he gestured for me to take the lone chair while he remained standing.

When the Rensings first began raising pigs, gestating swine lived in a barn-like structure with an open-floor plan that allowed them to go inside or out. While the floor was concrete, sows gave birth on an eight-inch bed of straw rather than in steel-lined crates. That structure now houses Rensing’s modest herd of roughly four-dozen cattle. The hogs were moved in 1995 to new, indoor confinement facilities that enabled the Rensings to increase their volume and efficiency and hope for high profits.

For a time, Rensing’s farm classified as a small CAFO – short for concentrated animal feeding operation – or the comparable layman’s term “factory farm” – because it held 1,000 or more animal units (a measurement of total livestock based on the feed or space requirements of each animal). “We became a CAFO from about 1995 to roughly 2004, 2005,” he said. After Rensing dropped his animal units, the farm was no longer classified as a CAFO. “As far as the overall pork industry in the United States, farms our size [are] not very significant, or as significant as we used to be.”

In raising animals in confinement buildings, Rensing is representative of the farming system that the majority of pig producers follow today. “It was the standard,” Rensing explained of the family’s decision to choose a confinement system. “The mega-packers – like the Cargills, Excels – we went along with what they wanted us to do years ago and it has not worked out well for us.” At the opposite end of the hog-farming spectrum is a pasture-based system in which pigs are raised outdoors using pasture as a nutrition source.

Rensing’s farm is far from perfect. He could switch to a more open-layout system, but with record low prices, decreasing margins and corporate competition, making the leap seems financially impossible. “If I don’t have the capital to do it up front, it’s not worth it,” he said, noting that he would lose efficiencies during a transitional period. And if he abandoned the existing confinement facility altogether? “The bank still wants their money,” he replied. He noted that the value per acre of farmland is higher for raising crops than it is hogs. “You can’t pay for it with a pig. Years ago, hogs were a mortgage lifter; now they are a mortgage maker.”

It’s been almost 20 years since Rensing and his parents made a decision that bet on their farm’s future, a wager that hasn’t paid off. He hopes to have better luck this time around. His plan for getting the farm back in the black? Diversify.

Opportunities opened for Rensing when he struck a deal with Paul Otten and Brad Schmitz, owners of Wenneman Meat Market in St. Libory, Ill. An old-school butcher shop, Wenneman now slaughters and processes nearly 30 percent of Rensing’s pork for his restaurant clientele and for retail accounts like Township Grocer in Edwardsville, Ill. Rensing sells the majority of his hogs to pork packer Trim-Rite Food Corp., based in Carpentersville, Ill. He’s worked with Trim-Rite for the last year and a half, having chosen the company because, “they were smaller and paying a premium,” he explained. “I’d rather work with a smaller business.” Rensing also works with Grantfork Meats in Highland, Ill., which processes a minor number of his hogs and the majority of his beef.

Five years ago, Rensing became a vendor at Edwardsville’s Goshen Farmers Market. “I stepped way the hell out of my comfort zone,” he recalled about learning to sell directly to the public. “That first year, half my market was one little, old lady. She used to buy 50 percent of my sales almost every Saturday. And it built from there.” While Rensing has since become a fixture at the farmers market, he’s quick to point out that he can’t rely on that marketplace to make a living. “You got the empty-baggers and you’ve got the buyers,” he explained. “We need more buyers who are committed to helping the local producers.”

The relationships Rensing has made at the farmers market have resulted in numerous accounts with restaurants that want to support quality, local suppliers. Bigelo’s Bistro in Edwardsville relies on his pork chops. The Block uses Rensing’s pork exclusively, with chef-owners Marc Del Pietro and Brian Dougherty counting on one to two whole hogs a week for their Webster Groves restaurant. It is Rensing’s pork that Jonathan Jones, co-owner of Southwest Diner, chooses for making green chile stew, red chile-braised pork shoulder, and house-made breakfast sausages and chorizo. “I like dealing directly with the farmer,” Jones said of his decision to buy from Rensing. “He’s the one that is delivering. He’s been great to work with. For the quality of the product, his price is very good.”

Chef Matt Bessler of Schafly Bottleworks, who has worked with Rensing’s pork products for the last five years, concurred that, when you have to choose, local trumps many other factors. “It’s been a lot better when it’s locally raised and it’s a family business rather than using a big, corporate company.”

Rensing has been supplying Acero with pork for the last two years so chef Adam Gnau can transform pork butts into porchetta. For Gnau, local topped his priority list when it came to sourcing meat. “It seems that most everyone we can locally procure from care about their animals more,” Gnau explained. “He doesn’t have so much of a number that he can’t keep control over everything. He’s the guy out there dealing with them and delivering me the product.”

“His quality of meat is above and beyond high-production food,” said Eric “Ed” Heath, chef and co-owner of Cleveland-Heath who has used Rensing’s pork and beef since opening the restaurant in Edwardsville in late 2011. He called Rensing’s pork T-bone “perfectly marbled” and “near perfection,” his pork belly consistent in its fat content. “He’s a moderate producer but it feels like a small farm, getting that kind of level of quality from him. He basically doesn’t have employees. He does it all himself all day long. We can relate to that as small business owners.” Heath’s partner, Jenny Cleveland, praised Rensing as a fantastic supplier of high-quality meat whom she can rely on to provide custom cuts at a fairly high volume, on short notice and within her diners’ budgets.

Heath agreed that Rensing both fills a gap in the local food supply and helps him meet the high demands of running a restaurant. “If we weren’t using Chad and only a local, outdoor farm – we do 700 people on a Saturday – I don’t know [if] we could get enough to feed all those people,” he explained.

“With Chad, we love him because he’s local,” Cleveland said. “He’s not organic, not outdoor hogs. His product does have that much more care than if we were buying commodity pork.” Yet, she noted, “it’s a step in the right direction and someone we like to support. … Through him we’ve met a guy who sells free-range chickens. … We’ve been able to find sources for farm-fresh eggs. That’s all come through Chad and his relationships with the [Goshen Farmers] Market and him helping people to find outlets for their products.”

Rensing has also begun to fill the role of go-to guy for chefs seeking other local products. You need bison? Lamb? Call Chad. Not only will he connect you, he’ll act as broker and deliver it to your door. “It’s about being a resource instead of being a beggar for your business. I don’t want to beg for your business; I want to earn it. If I have to diversify myself off my farm to supplement my personal income, I’m going to,” said Rensing, doubtful that he’ll ever retire but determined to remain his own boss.

Eight years ago, that same conviction prompted him to start raising cattle, something that his parents had quit some 20 years before. He’s also sowing his oats in the show pig sector, raising Pietrain, an exotic breed. “The sows are going to get bred no matter what, so I might as well have two marketing avenues. Actually, it’ll be three,” he said, revising, “if you consider wholesale, retail and pig show pigs.”

Rensing didn’t attend John Wood Community College to become a businessman. He went to learn how to be a good hog farmer. But times are changing. These days, not only is he feeding hogs, he’s pulling out his iPhone to get the feed on industry news from websites like SwineWeb.com. And fortunately, the headlines are getting better. Weaned pigs have risen from their bottomed-out price of $4 last September to $66 in January, while feeder pigs have risen from their low of $12 to $75. But the damage has been done. Rensing will feel the effects of the bottoming of the market for years to come. “There were some days it was pretty sickening to load pigs when you had all your expensive feed costs in ‘em and you know you’re losing money,” he explained. “It killed us. It’s not fun right now, but it wouldn’t be the first time we dug ourselves out of a hole.”

And at a time when the rate of farmer suicide is three times the national average, this affable young farmer is experiencing an auxiliary benefit to direct sales: a social life. He looks forward to Wednesdays, when he makes his restaurant delivery rounds, taking a moment to shoot the breeze with chefs and maybe even enjoy a beer. He called his budding restaurant relationships “really, really positive.”

It’s uplifting to hear about younger farmers willing to take over their family business, but it would be naïve to think that job is easy. Decisions have to be made, and the consequences of those decisions can be felt for years, decades even. Rensing’s farming practices aren’t perfect. And while he knows his future can’t be either, he’s hopeful that, if he plays his cards right, it will be bright. And considering how he’s adapting to market realities – decreasing his herd size, and diversifying his market base and income stream while filling a need in our local food community – the light at the end of his tunnel seems to be flickering brighter than it has in years.