Identifying a need drives Gordon Spronk, and early on he knew that agriculture was his calling.
Just as agriculture is the backbone of southwestern Minnesota where Spronk originates and still calls home, farming also runs long in his family's lineage. "From my father, I learned the love of agriculture," Spronk says. "You can go back to Northern Europe and find more than 10 generations of our family name raising livestock and farming."
His grandfather immigrated around the turn of the 20th century as a 19-year-old from the Netherlands "and immediately started farming in southwest Minnesota." He raised four boys and a couple of girls, and with the exception of the eldest daughter, they all ended up on the farm. "We are no different than many farm families."
Spronk combined that agriculture heritage with the love of education that he got from his mother.
"My mother [Alma] was of the generation who only had eighth grade educations," Spronk says. "Well, she made sure all her children not only had high school educations, every one of the children had a college degree if not an advanced degree. She was adamant about education." Alma's yearning for her children's education came from her own hunger, as hunger that went unsatisfied as she had to help on her father's farm, watching other children her age heading off to school.
The oldest of the Spronk family was Fern, who was a nurse and lived in Grand Rapids, Mich. She passed away in 2018 of cancer. Then came Delmar, a brother who is an optometrist in Sheldon, Iowa. Brothers Leon and Randy, both farmers, bracket Gordon in age, with Randy being the youngest.
What he has done with that combination of agriculture and education, and identifying a need is what makes Gordon Spronk one of this year's Masters of the Pork Industry.
"A sinner, a saint, a veterinarian, an agriculturalist, a father, a grandfather, a widowed husband: that is who I am."
Spronk emailed that statement shortly after the initial interview for this article, to explain what makes up Gordon Spronk.
Veterinarian and an agriculturalist
After graduating from high school in Edgerton, Minn., Spronk attended Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, to complete his pre-veterinary academic work, before taking one year of schooling at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he also competed on the meats and general livestock judging teams.
Acceptance to veterinary school took Spronk to the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities after his one year at SDSU. "That was a hard decision for me because I did want to judge both meats and livestock," he says. "All my hard academic work was done in my first two years [at Dordt], and so it was really the animal science and the livestock judging experience that I wanted at SDSU, mostly because my brothers [Leon and Randy] had done that. I wanted to be part of that legacy."
In addition to getting his doctor of veterinary medicine degree, Gordon and Randy "took over the family farm from dad and we continue to be in partnership. It's Spronk Brothers to this day, and now we have actively engaged in transfer of the farm on to the next generation. So we do have concerns for their success as well as our own."
Direct out of the University of Minnesota, Spronk joined G.F. Kennedy at Pipestone Veterinary Clinic in 1981. E.A. Schweim and P.A. Pinkert founded the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic as a large animal veterinary practice and Kennedy joined the practice in 1960. Kennedy and Spronk led what would come to be known as Pipestone Veterinary Services and today staffs over 40 veterinarians in six locations across Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois.
Spronk credits Al Leman, who mentored Spronk during veterinary school, for suggesting that the Pipestone veterinarians think beyond geographical boundaries, outside of Pipestone County, and even outside of Minnesota. "Meet needs where there is demand, and don't be restricted by a geographical area," he says. "That's Al Leman teaching swine veterinarians that."
Though now known mostly for swine medicine, Pipestone Veterinary Services also provides care for beef, dairy, sheep, goats and companion animals. Kennedy spent his entire career at Pipestone Veterinary Services, before passing in 2018. "Actually, I probably spent more time being a dairy veterinarian in the first five, six years, maybe even a decade, than as a pig veterinarian," he says. "It was when we started meeting needs and identifying specific needs of the local swine producer that we dedicated more time to the swine industry."
The example of longevity set by Kennedy appears to be the norm at Pipestone Veterinary Services. "It's rare today that somebody stays in one position that long," Spronk says. "That's part of our culture at Pipestone, you come to work here, and you spend your life here and that's a part of our culture that we are proud of."
Developing a culture of longevity at Pipestone Veterinary Services and now Pipestone System, which Kennedy and Spronk formed in 1988, goes far beyond the work of the individuals of Schweim, Pinkert, Kennedy and Spronk. It's a collective culmination of efforts of those four, but Spronk is quick to acknowledge others.
"I'd never claim to be the sole source," he says. "There's so many people that were key, between Kennedy and Jay [Bobb] and Barry [Kerkaert], Luke [Minion] and, there's so many producers who trusted us and so many staff that are responsible for our success and where we've come from the early '80s to now."
Spronk points to two keys responsible for the success that originates in southwestern Minnesota.
"One is meeting a need. If you can identify a need and meet that need, that goes a long way," he says. "Secondly, I think it's the passion we have for agriculture and for helping the independent producer. If not all, nearly all of our staff and our team, come from rural areas, we've come from the farm. Farm pride of ownership and success of local ownership and returning that asset, those profits back right to the farm, that's what wakes us up every day. When we see generational change of families that are successful, that they can attract another generation home because there's enough profitability there and there's enough future potential there, that really is where we get passionate. Agriculture and helping the independent farmer is our target. We have not wavered from that mission."
Kennedy and Spronk saw the changes that were occurring in the mid-'80s, coming off the high interest rates of the '70s, followed up by the fluctuation of land values in the '80s. "Production models were changing and it became very apparent to us in the middle to late-'80s, that pig production was changing rapidly," Spronk recalls, "and farmers, our veterinary clients needed better genetics, better health, larger groups of pigs, better nutrition and better management."
Out of that need, the Pipestone System was born, with Spronk again giving credit to Leman, "he encouraged me, making sure that we met the needs of producers back in the '80s."
The Pipestone System concept began with gilts that were healthier with no pseudorabies, no porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which was just beginning to surface, and no Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia.
"Better genetics were being imported in the '80s from Europe, so for our farms it was very clear that in order for them to compete that they needed to make some changes and they needed to do that in order to retain ownership," he says. "The survival of the family owned farm in the Midwest USA was, and continues to be, a core mission." With that in mind, producers within the Pipestone System retain ownership of the pigs.
Pipestone has evolved over the years to include production-driven research, nutrition management, animal health, record keeping and marketing services, today working with over 1,500 farmers, managing over 300,000 sows. A new generation of staff and owners is now taking the mission and values forward.
"What we're really proud of is our farmers' success," he says. "We're passionate about making sure that they have the ability and the opportunity to pass that farm onto the next generation because we all know what's happened to agriculture since the '50s: fewer and fewer families, smaller and smaller families and more and more ownership concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Trust me, I believe in capitalism just like anybody else. We're here to compete, but sometimes the playing field needs to be leveled, and we need to make sure that we lead and educate our rural areas to help assist anyone who wants to compete and thrive."
Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University professor and Extension swine specialist, has seen the impact that Spronk and the Pipestone team has had on the swine industry, both across the globe, across the country and in South Dakota. "They have done some really innovative things. In the '90s when a lot of the small farms were going out of business, everybody was farrow-to-finish, single-site operations, and they were saying, ’I’m done’. With crop farming operations also getting bigger, we just can't do a good job breeding and farrowing sows while at the same time trying to get field work done, we're just getting rid of the pigs.' With Pipestone, they basically took the old feeder pig co-op model, but they were able to modify the concept so it worked well. … they kept a lot those guys that were about to exit the swine industry in pork production, just in a different way of doing it."
Not being able to put exact numbers on the impact, Thaler says the South Dakota swine industry has definitely been impacted by the Pipestone System.
"If you look at people who have really influenced the growth of the swine industry in South Dakota and region, Dr. Spronk and the Pipestone System were some of the key people in that process. " Thaler says. "They were able to bring groups of interested producers together, help them get sows barns built that provided high quality iso-wean pigs for producers to finish on their own farms, and offered a variety of management and technical services that made them as competitive as anyone in the world. That allowed guys like Brad Greenway [hog farmer by Mitchell, S.D.] to put up finishing barns, diversify their farming operations, and that has kept a lot of young people in pork production and staying in their rural communities."
Spronk also gives of his time, aiding Thaler with an SDSU international ag travel class to China, in addition to talking with students about being a veterinarian and all the different opportunities available to them in the swine industry.
"What Gordon's done as leader of the Pipestone Vet Clinic and now Pipestone System, I think it's pretty incredible," Thaler says. “Very few people have impacted pork production as much as he has over his career.”
Just as Al Leman encouraged swine veterinarians to think beyond county and state lines, Spronk credits Bob Morrison, University of Minnesota veterinary professor, with opening up the world. "Bob Morrison taught me the value of looking at the industry internationally," Spronk says. "So I've had the privilege just this year to already have been to Asia, Europe and to India, on both charity and, industry business."
In his travels, Spronk has seen how the U.S. pork industry stacks up to the rest of the world. "One thing that becomes very, very clear, and this is not to be arrogant or anything, but the U.S. industry is a very, very competitive, passionate industry that can match up to anybody in the world. Not only on the quality of the product, but on the efficiency, on the cost of production and on the health. We've got a great industry." Unless you experience that and see it firsthand, you may not truly appreciate that. "If you stay local, you've read one chapter of a book," he says, "if you get to travel you have the opportunity to read the whole book."
Spronk and others from the Pipestone group spend a fair amount of time in China, as the company has a staff of around 300 people, as well as a minority ownership in a company that has 20,000 sows farrow-to-finish. "We manage another 60,000 sows for our management customers there," he says.
Joel Nerem joined Pipestone 14 years ago, and he sees the company's presence in China as a major step in learning the international business, as well as being on the front lines when it comes to disease control. "He has spent a lot of time leading our efforts in providing services in China, which has helped us learn a lot about the international pork industry, Nerem says, "His experience along with other members of our team that went to China, really helped us navigate the PED situation. We had on-the-ground experience in China with PED and that really helped us focus our efforts."
That focus translated to the work done by Pipestone's Scott Dee looking at the possible transmission of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, and now looking at feed mitigants. "Now this translated into interest in helping advance global science and management techniques in the face of African swine fever," Nerem says. "We continue to be active in trying to better understand ASF, trying to keep it out of the United States, out of the Western hemisphere. Gordon has been very active in those activities. … He's helped engage the customs and border patrol and other areas in government, et cetera, to make sure that we're providing all the resources we can to keep it out of our country."
A father, a grandfather, a widowed husband
Gordon and Deb Spronk raised three children: Courtney, Jordan and Morgan, and have since been blessed with three grandchildren.
All that came crashing down on May 2, 2017, as Gordon and Deb were traveling to the European College of Porcine Health Management conference in Prague, Czech Republic, with Bob and Jeanie Morrison and Tom and Pam Wetzell. Bob Morrison, Deb Spronk and Pam Wetzell were killed, when the vehicle that the six were traveling in collided with another vehicle. Gordon, Tom and Jeanie all suffered physical injuries, as well as the longer lasting injuries of the heart.
Gordon lost two best friends that day, Bob Morrison and his wife, Deb. "Bob taught me to be a student, and even in grief you can be a student," Gordon says. "Especially in agriculture, we learn about death. As part of agriculture, we see the life cycle up close everyday: we see animals born and die, the calf dies, or we see the pig die, we deal with death all around us with the frequency of the seasons and cycles."
Spronk has a spiritual background, but that became more ingrained since that dreadful day in May.
"When facing death, you go through the seasons of grief. The death of a parent is the shortest grief, because they're expected to die before you," he says. "I agree with the observation that the death of a child is the longest grief; no parents should ever have to go through that. The death of a spouse is the most dangerous grief, and the death of a friend is the most painful grief, I think."
Death of a spouse is the most dangerous because "you've lost half of yourself. Another way to say it, especially for men, you lose your target. For me, when I got up every morning, I went to work for Deb. All day I worked hard, for Deb. Every day I went to work hard for Deb. I came home every day to see Deb."
He may have lost his target in Deb, but he still has his children and grandchildren. "Sometimes your purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others and serve as an example, so you want to make sure you still fulfill your purpose and your calling in life and make sure that the values and the way their mother or their grandmother lived, that you want to honor that," he says. “To teach them the most important thing they can do every day is to relentlessly focus on eternity.”
Charity has a strong place in Spronk's heart, and by extension in the heart of the Pipestone System. The group had been working in India to develop a school for children there, and after the accident claimed the trio on that Czech roadway, Gordon says it only seemed logical to continue with the project to be built in honor of Bob Morrison, Deb Spronk and Pam Wetzell. "Bob would be very, very happy, and so would Pam and Deb. They'd be very pleased, and they'd be humbled that it's built in honor of them," Spronk says. "Building a school to honor Bob sort of just fit because he was an educator and he loved international work. He loved supporting other cultures."
Pipestone Veterinary Services, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Foundation Auction and family members contributed to build the 10,000 square feet, $150,000 Rhema Public School in India.
Just as quickly as he is to give credit where credit is due, Spronk as promptly accepts blame.
"I'm a convicted felon," Gordon says matter-of-factly. "That's a dark period in my career."
What he speaks of takes us back to 1998, in the heat of another pork crisis. Spronk was contacted by a lender who also owned the local bank, asking if Spronk would sign a $400,000 note to allow for a loan to another customer. Spronk never received any money, but the other customer used that note to cover up a bad loan. That process in a federal lending institution is against the law, and Spronk was found guilty of making false statements to a federal lending institution. He was sentenced to one day in jail and three years' supervised release. He also was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine and serve 300 hours of community service.
"When Jacob wrestled with God and when he got done wrestling, do you know what God did? He said, 'OK, I'll bless you, but you're going to walk with a limp the rest of your life,'" Spronk says, "so my felony conviction, I'll walk with a limp the rest of my life."
Though he may be walking with that limp, Gordon Spronk has stood tall, always teaching, always learning, and always working hard to not only identify needs of the U.S. swine industry, but to also provide value and develop solutions.