Jim Anderson’s memory tracks back several decades. “I was probably 5-6 years old. Dad had a few sows and sold the pigs off as feeder pigs. I recall my Dad saying we’d be getting $5, maybe $6 for these pigs.”
Times have changed. Today at their Stearns County operation, John and Jim Anderson and his sons market upwards of 60,000 pigs yearly — all from their own sow herd. “We’ve always farrowed our own pigs and used that knowledge to help expand slowly over the years,” Anderson said. “Also, we’re a multiplier for a company called DNA out of Nebraska. We operate a ‘grandparent’ herd, raising purebred Yorkshires for them. Yes, a bit more difficult to raise compared with cross-bred breeding stock. The Yorks don’t have the heterosis, the ‘hybrid vigor’ that a normal, crossbred commercial pig would have. But the Yorks produce a lot of pigs … I think the boys are now weaning close to 30 pigs per sow per year. Back when we had outdoor pigs we’d settle for 14 to 15 pigs per sow per year.”
Anderson said about two-thirds of their gilts are sold as breeding stock to other multipliers who generally cross them to a Landrace and then get sold to commercial hog farmers. Yes, Anderson Farms gilts do some traveling — across the U.S. ’swine belt’ and even overseas too. “My brother has sold pigs to Spain, to Alaska, to Mexico and several other countries. These multiplier operations are everywhere where there is a thriving swine industry,” said Anderson.
So how do you handle a pig for overseas delivery? Anderson said his brother should be doing the talking; but in his absence Jim volunteered, “They’re hauled to Chicago, isolated into a quarantined holding area, then loaded into containers for aerial delivery wherever intended … like into Spain for someone wanting to start a breeding herd over there.”
Considering the sheer volume of yearly pigs produced just by the Anderson operation, I asked him, “With your multiple years in the swine industry, are you comfortable with these production trends? Daily slaughtering numbers in the U.S. are now around 380,000!”
Anderson’s candid response, “I think we’ve become our own worst enemy. When the market looks good, we think expansion. And that merely puts the onus on us to be a low-cost producer doing it cheaper, better and faster than the next guy to survive. That’s the long and short of the pig business these days.”
Part of the Anderson success formula is they grow all the major feed consumed in their huge operation. “The crops feed the hogs; the hog manure feeds our crops,” offered Anderson. “We don’t buy many ingredients other than minerals, vitamins and so forth. And we’ve eliminated the expenses of commercial fertilizers for our crops.”
Hog manure gets flushed into containment tanks at their swine facilities. Last year they invested in a drag-line system which condensed their usual two months of fall spreading into about 10 days of field work. “We have enough manure storage for 8 to 9 months, so manure handling is just a fall chore,” said Anderson.
Yes, the Andersons — like other hog producers — are marketing bigger pigs these days. “Probably 40 to 50 pounds heavier than 10 years ago,” Anderson estimated. “And we’re producing a lot more pigs. Yes, the entire U.S. swine industry has expanded basically because the pork market keeps expanding — especially our exports. The pork industry thinks exports will keep expanding, especially into China and that entire Asian area of the world. But that big splurge into China hasn’t happened and we’re wondering if it even will. Yep, supposedly we have a new agreement with China; but now with this coronavirus disaster, who knows what will happen.
“Yet it looks like a good future for pork. Even for us Americans today, about the cheapest protein you can buy is a boneless pork lion. You buy them for probably two bucks a pound and you’ve got a delicious meat providing far cheaper protein. And certainly much better than the fake imitation meats now getting into the food system.”
Why is this crazy meatless meats phenomenon happening? “I don’t think they can produce these imitations much cheaper,” said Anderson. “I think it’s the issue that a certain number of our people have become vegetarians. They believe its healthier eating … and we’re reducing greenhouse gas emissions from thousands of hogs and cattle belching and farting into the atmosphere. Plus, there’s apparently some people who don’t like this slaughtering of farm livestock. When it comes to health, I don’t think anything is healthier than eating livestock meats — especially pork — and other dairy products too.”
I asked Anderson if he was a bit biased. He responded, “Yes, perhaps, but at this Minnesota Pork Congress two years ago, a gal by the name of Nina Techholz talked — telling us she was a vegetarian and got a job as food editor with a ‘big ticket’ New York City publication. The job took her to many fancy restaurants to taste and write about their meat menu items like steak and pork chops and so forth.
“She got to really liking these meats and ended up losing about 20 pounds of body weight. So she started doing some research on the topic and found out the animal fats weren’t causing the heart disease problems the doctors were trying to tell us. Instead, the culprit is Crisco and plant-based products. She was very pleased with her new slender look and felt satisfied when she ate.”
Are hog producers in other parts of the world also adopting new practices?
Said Anderson, “I was in Denmark about 8 years ago. I went through a packing plant over there and there wasn’t a human hand that touched the pig until it left the facility as a meat product. Also, each product was labeled as to which Danish farm had raised the product … and this is for all Danish meats wherever they are sent. I would love to see this happening in America. I think more and more our food customers wish to know the farm source of the meat products they are buying. The more traceability we can provide back to individual farms, the better.”
Even though Anderson Farms employs 10 people in addition to their own family help, Jim says labor is still a concern. “We’re fortunate. We have a good labor pool. In Minnesota we have a plus. People like to live here. I’m hearing labor is more difficult to find in our other major swine states. We have both migrant labor and locals; but we’re relying more and more on migrant labor. We provide medical insurance to all our people; even housing to some of our employees. We value our employees … they are the biggest asset we have.”
Yes, that includes paid vacations — though Anderson said they have to work out their vacation schedules that works for all. “You have to have somebody doing chores every day,” he chuckled. That increases to three weeks after a few years and there is gender equity in the ranks of Anderson Farms.
“If they know how to do their job, that’s all that matters,” he said. “We have quite a few female employees. One gal (Cindy Welller) started with us after they sold off their dairy herd. She’s been with us 24 years.”
Anderson still stands tall at 6-foot-plus. He’s a healthy 67 and credits two pig valves in his heart for keeping him alive every day. His sons, Grant, Noah and Isaac, plus brother John are operational managers of this huge pork and crop operation.
I asked two of the sons if their Dad was still the teacher or is there now a common exchange of information. Both chuckled, indicating ‘no comment.’ But Isaac added, “Dad is rather amazing. He still runs the show; but is totally open to all of our opinions. He’s a diligent guy and a great observer of what’s happening in this entire swine industry.”
Said Noah, “We strive for ways to get into value-added marketing opportunities to compliment our general sales. We try to keep our foot in the door on other options. We do a few different products with research pigs for medical use. Like with some of our sows, they harvest the livers and use them in skin grafting.”
“When Dad had a couple valves replaced on his heart, we even picked out the donor pig for him,” joked Isaac.