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Independent family farms thriving in face of industry consolidation

While many systems struggle to manage contract grower relationships, Brinker Farms takes a "family" approach to integrating contract growers into the business.

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Missouri Farmers Care

While the Carthage System was built to help family farms cost effectively grow in the pork industry through the ownership of sow shares, we understand there are many models in which producers can develop a successful pig farming business. We believe in the importance of having independent producers directly involved in our nation's food supply chain and are committed to helping producers achieve their goals in any way possible. Consolidation has been a predominant theme in the industry over the last several decades, however there are countless independent producers who've been extremely successful without participating in the constant mergers and acquisitions occurring throughout our industry. 

Even though consolidation facilitates some advantages via economies of scale, independent producers often have the advantage of deep relationships, unleveraged assets and a tight geographical footprint that facilitates management of key logistical details which get lost in big systems. Most importantly, these types of farms invest heavily in sustainability of their operations to ensure the next generation has the same opportunities as the current generation of farm leadership

I am fortunate to get to work with a great example of this production model with Brinker Farms. Brinker Farms is managed by the Brinker family and their pigs are produced throughout Missouri. Kenny Brinker serves as the family patriarch, having gained decades of experience on his home farm and working to transfer that knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. 

Thrust into a family leadership role at the age of 16 following the unexpected loss of his mother, Kenny took on significant responsibility as a very young man. Through hard work and dedication, Kenny not only ensured his family survived but that they thrived. Today the Brinker operation includes a 2,800 sow operation, numerous contract growers, thousands of acres of row crop ground and several other diversified investments across the food production industry. 

Farming wasn't easy for the Brinker family in Kenny's younger days and it isn't easy today. Early on, Kenny had to make the difficult decision to sell the historical family farm and use the 1031 land transfer to relocate their farm to a more attractive location. Always a keen learner, Kenny sought out expertise from other pig producers before expanding his own operation, touring hog operations in North Carolina and collaborating with a large genetic company on his first large confinement operation. 

Kenny knew his investment in a large confinement operation required an equally important investment in farm management to oversee its production. In 1994, Kenny hired Shane Sorrell to manage the operation while the barns were still under construction. Shane still serves as the farm manager today, overseeing the successful production of the 2,800 breed-to-wean facility that routinely produces >32 PSY.

Shane was the first piece of the human capital puzzle, however he certainly wasn't the last – the Brinker family has prioritized hiring and retaining high quality farm employees. While most large production systems struggle with turnover in leadership positions, Brinker Farms achieves its lofty performance goals because of the long tenured leadership not only in the farm manager role, but also in the roles of breeding and farrowing leadership.

Brinker Farms isn't vertically integrated, but it's not afraid of partnership and collaboration. In 2008, Kenny and family had the opportunity to obtain a stake in the Triumph Foods operation. Along with other midsized producers, owning shares in packing plants has created an avenue for "virtual integration" without giving up production independence. 

Partnership and collaboration doesn't stop at the packing plant. One of the critical partnerships that can help independent producers produce pigs at scale is contract grower relationships. The Brinker family has relationships with numerous contract growers throughout Missouri. While many systems struggle to manage contract grower relationships, Brinker Farms takes a "family" approach to integrating its contract growers into the business and avoiding the countless layers of middle management that often come with decision making in large production systems. If a contract grower has a question or concern with Brinker Farms, they know they're talking to the decision makers and know they'll be treated fairly. That approach leads to win/win relationships – when the contract grower knows you care about them they're going to make the extra effort that's sometimes needed in challenging pig production situations.

When asked about the "secret sauce" of Brinker Farms, Kenny thinks he can sum up their success as independent producers very simply. "In one word, personnel," Kenny says, "We started the farm in 1994, we quickly focused on getting good people to come work at the farm." 

Employees at Brinker Farms buy into their role and know it's a career, not a job. At the sow farm, the top four employees have each been there over 20 years and their day-to-day decisions demonstrate a high level of engagement and commitment to the farm's success. 

Actual production and daily care is done by the team, with very little oversight from Kenny and the rest of the Brinker family. This is very unique in the industry. Ownership doesn't micromanage the farm team and give them a lot of hands on direction. While communication is constant, the Brinker family rarely goes into the farm and lets farm employees own the day to day operations. Kenny meets with Shane every Friday afternoon to debrief the week and talk about next week's plans, but delegating has empowered Shane and his team to drive successful performance at the farm, achieving production numbers any producer would be proud to see hit their production reports.

The Brinker Farms management style not only empowers employees, but also ensures they are successful with retaining key farm staff. One of the farm's primary goals is a desire for quality over quantity, both with the staff and production numbers. 

Brinker Farms pays their employees quite well. Kenny regularly has other owners in the industry tell him he pays too much and Kenny challenges them back, "Figure how many pigs are under your employees' care and look at the labor cost/pig. Brinker Farms still wins that battle because we have high quality employees who produce world class results. The throughput of our operation ensures that our labor costs are competitive because we produce more pigs with less people than other systems." 

Along with monetary success, he says to try to give employees the credit they deserve. "Be the first people to highlight your staff as the real experts in the operation – give them the responsibility and the credit," Kenny says.

Acquiring, managing and retaining successful contract growers can be just as challenging for a swine production system as employee management. Brinker Farms has again focused on quality over quantity, partnering with likeminded farmers who were looking for extra income or extra duties to employ more family members at their operation. Kenny and his team have been very selective in the contract growers with which they've partnered. 

"You have to strategically place them geographically relative to your mill and packing plant, but you can still be picky about who you work with," he says. 

Again, following the Brinker Farms model of delegating and empowering, for existing contract growers who have built new barns Kenny and his team may not have ever been through those facilities. They have trust established through years of existing history and they've earned the delegation Brinker Farms provides them. 

Today, Brinker Farms would put up their group of contract growers against anybody. A proud set of growers with great, long term relationships, Brinker Farms feel confident in their ability to grow the contract grower network by word of mouth. Being independent has been a selling point to potential contract growers. 

Your barn isn't a number on a spreadsheet at Brinker Farms and that concept is very attractive to detail-oriented contract growers. "We don't have a field rep, we give the same authority and freedom to contract growers," says Kenny.  "They have my phone number, the vet's phone number and they can call 24/7. I check in personally with every grower every Monday morning to get the weekly production update, talk shipments and schedule while discussing any challenges they're encountering. Not that we don't have challenges, but I feel we can get to solutions much more quickly than if we had additional layers between myself and the contract grower."

Successful partnerships and collaborations don't stop with the packing plant and contract grower network at an independent family farm. You have to find additional support resources who have content expertise in areas you don't. For Brinker Farms, they've relied on the council of Joe Connor and our team at Carthage Veterinary Service.

Per Kenny, "Joe is a legend in the hog industry, he was introduced to our farm through a genetic relationship, but Joe always took extra interest in our farm. While I know we're not Carthage's only client, Joe always makes us feel like we're his most important client. Joe's consultation has been a huge component of our success through the years."

Mac Wilt, veterinarian with Paris Veterinary Clinic in Paris, Missouri has been another key contributor to the Brinker Farms success story. Kenny is as effusive with his praise for Wilt as he is with Connor. "Dr. Mac has been with us for years, he knows the growers very well and stays in close contact with them. He's available 24/7 for any questions and he'll visit the farm any time they need him. Most importantly, Mac fits our culture with his focus on setting our employees and contract growers up for success." 

Technical collaboration certainly doesn't end with veterinarians, nutritionists have also played a key role in the success of independent family farms. While small or medium sized producers may not be able to afford an on-staff nutritionist, they can still have access to world class nutrition consultation on a part time basis. 

"Historically we worked with Dr. Laura Griener during her time at Carthage. As Dr. Laura has transitioned to a role at Iowa State University she didn't have as much time for outside consultation and we've been fortunate to now work with Dr. Jorge Estrada on the Carthage Nutrition team," Kenny says. 

While nutrition is always important, runaway inflation has pushed ingredient prices to alarmingly high levels and dialing in diets has never been more important. "Dr. Jorge's work has been critical to managing our cost of production over the last year, he's always fine-tuning diets to reflect the most up-to-date ingredient prices. He's also hands on with our team. Dr. Jorge teaches body condition to farm staff on farm, reviews closeouts with me and conducts mill audits to ensure the nutrition program isn't just great on paper, but that it's actually getting to the right pigs at the right time." 

Kenny constantly goes back to surrounding himself with the right people as a key component to being a successful independent pig producer. "I always want to surround Brinker Farms with smart people – listen to them and they'll make you look good. We have been lucky enough to find gifted people, we treat them right and they treat us right in return. Don't have to be the brightest farmer in the room, you just need to work with the smartest people the industry has available."  

Operating an independent pig production system is challenging under normal circumstances but can be even more challenging when it's a family farm and normal family dynamics are in play. Kenny believes succession planning is a critical component to minimizing the challenges that family dynamics can bring into the business. 

"We personally started our asset transition 12-15 years ago, transferring ownership to children to include non-active children as well as children that are active farm participants," Kenny says. He sees his role as an advisor to the next generation, passing the torch in terms of asset ownership, estate and taxation planning but also passing the torch in terms of farm management knowledge and wisdom. 

"Look at it as a whole family business. Not just raising crops and pigs, we're also raising the next generation who will inherit the farm, the earth and all we hold dear. People need a balanced approach – don't let the business consume you," Kenny says. "Keep time for family that's distinct from work. Don't get so wrapped up in work you can't take the next generation fishing. You need to control your business, don't let your business control you." 

Kenny thinks having goals outside of just business performance are critical in an independent family farm setting. "Quality of life and human interaction are really important, who has the most pigs and who has the most money can't be the only definition of success for your family farm." 

At the end of the day, family farms must have a robust succession plan to ensure the legacy passes successfully from one generation to the next. "Plan ahead, nobody will live forever, nobody will have a Brinks truck in the funeral procession behind them to bury all the money with them. Plan for the next generation and don't try to hang on to everything. If the next generation has to wait until they're 40-50 years old to actually take over the operation, that's not a good plan and one that isn't sustainable for the family side of the business. There are always challenges working with family in the business, but the pluses outweigh the minuses," Kenny says.

In asking Brinker Farms to forecast what independent producers will need to do to be successful and sustainable in the coming decades, Kenny admits the path forward isn't completely clear and there are headwinds you'll have to fight against. Sow housing is a great example of this. Kenny recommends leaning on the same core principles of decision making that have worked for him through the years when faced with difficult decisions like what type of gestation facility to build. 

"We have to follow all the new recommend practices of today," he says. "Try to incorporate larger buildings and rooms that result in less distance to move people, sows and pigs making it much more convenient and a much better working environment." 

In terms of gestation housing to meet consumer, packer and regulatory requirement in the coming years Kenny advises, "Surround yourself with experts in the industry and if at all possible, include the management team of your packer to determine the best method for the future. Try to leave the most flexibility in breeding and gestation to adjust if needed."

When asked what advice he has for other independent producers Kenny says, "Make sure you have good mentors to work with. If you want to start out in the pork industry, the idea of starting with a contract WTF barn is a good one, it's a great way to network within the industry and learn from producers with more experience than you." 

At the end of the day, independent producers have control over the success or failure of their operation and the common sense and work ethic that have long differentiated successful farms from struggling farms still remains a core component of successful production today. "If you work hard and stay focused on what you want to achieve, determination goes a long way," Kenny says. "Take pride in everything you do, we pride ourselves on being independent." 

While being proud of your independence, don't close yourself off to formal integration opportunities. "Ownership in the processing side allows us to stay at the size we are today without the constant pressure for growth independent producers who rely on packer contracts encounter," he says. "This has been a critical part of our ability to focus on quality over quantity, because we choose if and when we grow." 

Kenny credits economists at the University of Missouri including Ron Plain and Dennis DiPeitre as having the vision and foresight to encourage him in Triumph ownership. Kenny advises, "There will always be a lot of folks out there telling you something is a good or bad idea. Think to yourself, is that person an expert in this area or do they just have an opinion? When the experts in an area advise you to do something, do it. If you aren't willing to take their advice, there's no reason to hire them to consult for you."

The Brinker Farms story is just one successful and sustainable pig production operation using a model that fit the values of their independent family farm. Even if their model isn't the right model for you, their story shows that independent family farms can thrive in the face of industry consolidation. Overall, independent family farms have been a driving force within our swine production industry for decades and for producers who embrace this model it will continue to allow pig production at all sizes and scales in the decades to come.

Source: Clayton Johnson, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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