Minnesota Pork Board names 2023 industry award winners

New to the awards line-up is the Legislator of Distinction Award, which recognizes a government ally who fights for pig farmers and agriculture.

February 22, 2023

19 Min Read
MN Pork Board.jpg
Minnesota Pork Board

Individuals and families who have made significant contributions through pork promotion, consumer and producer education, youth mentoring, and service to the pork industry were recognized by the Minnesota Pork Board at the annual Award Recognition Reception on Feb. 20 at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato, Minnesota. 

Distinguished Service 
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Reuben Bode as this year's Distinguished Service award recipient. Bode grew up on a small, diversified farm outside Courtland, Minnesota, with dairy cows, crops and a few sows. Shortly after getting married to his wife, Judy, of 54 years, and spending time working in Mankato, they began to farm alongside Bode's aging parents, officially naming the operation Rebco Pork in 1994. Moving back to the farm was always in the back of their minds when they married, and the family dynamic allowed for helping hands in a myriad of ways.

In 1986, they sold the dairy cows after deciding they wanted to pursue a pig-focused farm. Doubling in size from 100 to 200 sows, the Bode’s transitioned the dairy barn to house pigs and gradually added more pigs to the farm.

From 1986-2004, the farm remained stagnant in size with 200 sows and farmland. Following a vocational in Swine Production and Management in the early 1990s, their son, Ryan, showed committed interest in joining the business, and the farm grew again to 600 sows. To date, Rebco Pork is home to 2,400 sows on the home site, along with ownership in three other sow units.

Once they knew Ryan was interested in joining the farm full time, it helped in deciding what direction they wanted the farm to go. The farm originally started as farrow-to-finish but made the switch to farrow-to-wean with three-week-old pigs leaving the farm to be finished growing with contract partners. Neighbors and community members soon realized a contracted partnership with the Bodes provided a viable career in raising pigs. Barns in the surrounding area were built, with many individuals building more than one barn to house pigs. Not only did the Bode’s farm begin to grow, but they also brought interested labor to the pork industry.

In 2015, Bode joined forces with Pipestone Systems. A 10,000-sow unit was built, a number that astounded Bode, and he purchased shares, earning a spot on the board. He later involved himself on the boards of another sow unit, becoming a major shareholder in both units.

"Reuben has been a valuable leader to our state association as a thoughtful and respected spokesperson of our industry. He has selflessly dedicated much of his time to share the voice of his peers in creating meaningful outcomes," said Christi Johnson, sales manager at Pipestone Veterinary Services. "Reuben and Judy are progressive in their plans for the future and Pipestone is honored to partner with their family as they continue their legacy."

Throughout his career in the pork industry, Bode was quick to grab opportunities to promote pig farming and pork, even earning the Minnesota Pork Promoter of the Year award in 2013 along with Judy. Volunteering at events like Oink Outings, the state fair, and Farmers Feed Us provided occasions to speak with consumers face-to-face.

Most notably, the Bodes were well-known for the farm tours they gave on their farm. Busloads of kindergarteners, senators, governors and online bloggers from the Metro area were found at Rebco Pork several times each year learning about the responsible practices involved in raising pigs. Bode described how parents coveted being chaperones for school field trips to the farm.

Bode described his desire to "do his share" when it came to getting involved in associations, events and boards. He remembered watching others join boards and involve themselves in industry groups and thought, "I can do that, too." From his six-year term on the Nicollet County Pork Board in the 90s, seven years on the Minnesota Pork Board with two years as president, and participating in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program, Bode rarely backed away from opportunities to learn, accept challenges and get involved.

Environmental Steward
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Adam Barka as this year's Environmental Steward of the Year award recipient. Barka's upbringing prepared him for a career in agriculture, as he grew up on a diversified livestock farm that consolidated to strictly dairy farming in his high school years. He studied his way through two years at North Dakota State University and two years at the University of Minnesota focused on animal production systems with an emphasis on dairy production.

He and his wife, Trista, moved back to Litchfield where Barka worked at his family farm for one year then transitioned to a role at the Meeker County Soil and Water Conservation District as an assistant county feedlot officer. In this role, he oversaw environmental compliance for feedlots, wetlands, noxious weeds and stormwater. To this day, he is grateful for his mentors and co-workers during his four years serving in that position, as they prepared his understanding of the nuances of regulatory and zoning issues in Minnesota and the four other states he oversees compliance in.

In 2008, Barka joined Christensen Farms as a business development representative. One month into this role, an opening in environmental compliance became available that more appropriately suited his sweet spot for sustainability. Moving through the ranks within the Agronomy and Environmental Stewardship department within the company, Adam has held the position, director of environmental stewardship, for more the last  nine years and has responsibility for the agronomy manure application team.

Christensen Farm's commitment to pursuing excellence and stewardship was Barka's primary reason for joining the company. Though his time working under Bob Christensen's leadership was limited, Barka described that Bob's "vision for environmental stewardship" still influences his thoughts and actions today.

"I have been honored to work for an organization where stewardship has been part of the culture since it's founding," stated Barka. "At CF, I am focused on how we pursue excellence and not on doing the bare minimum or just what is required."

In his effort to go above and beyond regarding environmental stewardship, Barka is most proud of the innovative watering toggle valve installed in many of their farms to provide increased water management. After identifying inconsistent water flow, overflowing water pans and diluted manure, Barka led the agronomy team to adopt a new water delivery mechanism. Upon implementation, the valve has been a successful part of reducing more than 60 million gallons of water use in their wean-to-finish system annually. This water conservation effort was recognized by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for improvements in water usage, reduction of waste and increased environmental stewardship. Among other practices, Barka encourages farmer participation in soil conservation efforts such as utilizing minimal-till manure application practices, cover crop application and annually testing manure structures.

"We manage all parts of our operations to ensure appropriate resource use, whether it is water, feed, energy, or land," Barka reflected. "We also focus on the location of our facilities and ensure we work with our neighbors to address questions about our facilities."

When identifying new site locations, and maintaining current sites, Barka wants to make sure neighboring property owners feel heard and valued. Each party holds a significant investment, and working together, especially when issues do arise, is paramount.

"I want to ensure that people feel heard, whether it is a neighbor, regulator, or team members. I want to do the right thing every day," stated Barka.

Family of the Year
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Jim Veldkamp's farm transfer of ownership to the Kracht family as this year's Family of the Year award recipient. Though Jim Veldkamp and his late wife JoAnn’s farm transition differs from the average family farm to the outsider’s eye, the same opportunities and challenges exist for Ethan and Chyana Kracht’s family, who have worked alongside Veldkamp for the last six years with the intent to succeed Veldkamp.

In 1973, Jim Veldkamp and his wife JoAnn purchased a farm outside of Jasper, Minnesota, farrowing only 75 sows in their first few years along with some feeder cattle. Over time, the farm grew by cropland acres and number of livestock. Soon after, they proceeded with strictly buying finishing pigs and raising them until harvest, but reached a plateau in profitability.

In the early 1990s, Veldkamp decided their style of raising pigs was no longer profitable. Veldkamp had a background in carpentry and considered pursuing opportunities in that line of work while crop farming. In the summer of 1993, Gordon Spronk hosted a meeting in Pipestone, sharing a new strategy for efficient, profitable pig production. After attending the meeting with piqued interest, the Veldkamps invited Spronk to their farm to share more about the vision. During this meeting, the Veldkamps described their labor-intensive farming practices and Spronk teasingly asked, "Do you like to work so much?"

That year, Veldkamps became one of the first shareholders in the Pipestone System, purchasing shares to help build a sow farm to supply weaned pigs to his nursery and finishing barns. They retained their farming independence, while taking advantage of a common swine management system and barn modernization.

"We thought the pig industry had passed us by," Veldkamp reflected, expressing their hesitation to invest so much capital upfront to an idea that had not been proved to work or be successful at that point. "It's known as the Pipestone System now, but at that time it was called the '10 Pound Pig Project.' But I am glad we were open to adapting back in 1993; that set the course for the rest of my career."

Veldkamp explained how the switch to becoming a Pipestone shareholder set their farm on a new trajectory for business leadership, and looking back now, he recognizes it as a very smart decision.

Veldkamp credits the farm’s success over the last several decades to his wife, JoAnn, who loved everything the farm embodied. In 2017, JoAnn died of ovarian cancer. They had been married for 45 years when she passed, but her legacy throughout the community and the farm remains strong. 

Ethan Kracht grew up on a farm a few towns away from Veldkamp in rural Edgerton, Minnesota. Though row crops and cattle were what he was familiar with, he "saw the opportunity" to work at Veldkamp Farms raising pigs and took it. He willingly admits he didn't have a passion for pigs at first, but over the last six years, the consistency and opportunity for constant improvement in raising pigs has enticed him.

"With row crops, there are a lot of things you can’t control, but with pigs, most deviations lead back to management," Kracht described. "I enjoy numbers and the changes that go along with them that help improve the business."

In 2018, Kracht married Chyana, and they now reside outside Jasper raising their two children, Atley (2) and McCoy (3 months). Chyana moved to the farm two years after Kracht began his transition into ownership at Veldkamp Farms. Following JoAnn's passing, Veldkamp Farms utilized an accounting firm to handle the bookkeeping, but Chyana's background in business administration allowed her to take over the financials and record-keeping. Chyana reflected, "It’s been a learning process, but I am thankful for the improvements it has brought to the farm."

The Krachts look forward to continuing the family farm – challenges, opportunities, change and all. "It is a privilege and an honor to continue what Jim and JoAnn started and make our dream a reality," Chyana added thoughtfully. "We are glad we get to raise our little ones on the farm, and our hope is that they will have the same opportunity in the future."

To this, Jim responded, "It is very rewarding to see someone want to take over the farm. I've heard from both of them how grateful they are for the opportunity. They don't realize I need them as much as they need me."

Over the last several decades, Veldkamp Farms has operated with extreme integrity, always focusing on protecting the environment and bettering the rural community. Veldkamp Farms has received numerous awards for environmental stewardship both from the Minnesota Pork Board and National Pork Board, along with Veldkamp earning Rock County’s Outstanding Conservationist of the Year award on multiple occasions. Safeguarding the soil and water, maintaining an effective manure management system, and practicing ridge-tilling to avoid disturbing the soil resulting in erosion are a few of the ways Veldkamp Farms practices conservation.

The Krachts echoed Veldkamp's feelings on community involvement, hoping to immerse themselves in the community in the future to bring positive change. They reiterated the importance of being a sustainable farm known for doing things well to improve the environment and safeguard natural resources. "In raising a great product, we feel responsible that our pork is raised in a safe and transparent way," declared Kracht. "We desire to do things the right way and leave things better than when we started."

Pork Promoter of the Year
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Chef Donnie Schoenrock as this year's Pork Promoter of the Year Award recipient. Schoenrock has proved in the last seven years that one does not need to be a pig farmer to wholeheartedly believe in pork and spend their days advocating for the product. Previously a big city lover, Schoenrock stumbled by happenstance into small-town Jackson, Minnesota, and is now the proud owner of the renowned Kat's Hog Heaven restaurant, where he promotes pork on a daily basis showing consumers the benefits and ease of cooking pork.

Kat's Hog Heaven offers a unique restaurant proposition, as the large majority of items on the menu are pork. With nearly every product sold in the restaurant made from scratch in-house – hand-cut meat, homemade bread, etc. – Schoenrock prides himself on being nearly a zero-waste restaurant, utilizing as much from the pig as possible. His philosophy on pork stems from the idea that pork is "fantastic untouched."

He added, "People really try to make pork eccentric and do something cool with it, but that's just not necessary. Personally, I prefer pork chops unseasoned because they can stand up for themselves. I would put a properly-cooked pork tenderloin up against any piece of meat in the flavor department."

This philosophy follows through into the items you'll find on the menu and the style of cooking found at Kat's Hog Heaven. At his restaurant, Schoenrock showcases pork in a way people can make it at home. He described how people are intimidated by pork, but always encourages them to take it home and "just try it" with a very simple recipe with few ingredients.

"I want people to have pork be a consistent meal to make at home," admitted Schoenrock. "I love the fitness industry and try to be healthy most of the time. I would pick pork tenderloin over a chicken every day of the week because it's healthy, lean, packed full of protein, versatile, and I appreciate how pigs are grown. People just don't realize this."

Jay Moore, director of environmental services at New Fashion Pork added, "Donnie takes it upon himself to educate and endorse pork to each and every customer that walks through the door. While waiting on tables, Donnie takes the time to explain how they can make pork at home, even going as far as taking whole pork loins out to the table to describe how each cut is made, and how they can be used."

Swine Manager of the Year
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Adam Ziemke of Waseca, Minnesota, as this year's Swine Manager of the Year award recipient. Like many in the farming industry today, Ziemke grew up on a hobby farm, though his was a bit more diversified than the average farm including emus and other unpopular species. The farm was located only one mile away from where he works now at Wingspan Pork.

It was a natural occurrence for his uncle, who also used to work at Wingspan Pork, to invite Ziemke to help do odds-and-end jobs around the pig barns. At 13 years old, Ziemke was power washing barns and soon after was exposed to the nursery where he found his love for pigs, catering to them after school and assisting in loading them out before the school bells rang.

As he got older, he gained more responsibility on the farm. Now, at more than 20 years in his role, manages four wean-to-finish sites, with approximately 15,000 pigs at any given time. Ziemke does "a little bit of everything" on the farm, but daily chores, management duties, barn maintenance and monitoring pig health constitute his primary duties on a daily basis.

"I love this job because it's fun and challenging," stated Ziemke. "I like trying to figure out what I can do to make things better and enjoy that there's something different to do every day. No day looks the exact same."

Ziemke is an astounding worker, rarely ever taking days off. The owners of Wingspan Pork and veterinarians who consistently work with him both noted his diligence in not stopping until every job is finished for the day. "The only time he does not show up is when he physically cannot get out of bed," stated Joseph Yaros, DVM at Pipestone Systems.

Todd Selvik, owner of Wingspan Pork and vice president of the Minnesota Pork Board recalled, "During manure pumping, when he has to change the settings in the barns to prevent accidental loss, he will sleep on a cot in the office."

Seven days a week, Ziemke tends to his pigs monitoring their health and overall well-being. He believes a strong work ethic is important to succeed in this job, as one must go above and beyond when taking care of other living beings. The pig's lives depend on his work, so showing up every day, working hard, and staying until everything is done is imperative. Yaros pointed out Ziemke's husbandry skills as extraordinary, stating his ability to tell when an issue with the pigs is arising several days in advance of other caretakers.

"The pigs he works with have often been health challenged," acknowledged Yaros. "These pigs take extra work and bring on an emotional burden that other producers do not experience. Regardless of how difficult or frustrating the work may get, Adam continues to execute at the highest level."

During 2021, the PRRS 144 virus attacked one of Ziemke's sow units. He organized an effort between all farms in the system to collaborate, sharing notes, information and solutions to assist in fighting the virus.

Selvik added, "He talked to anyone he could, looking for solutions and repeatedly said, 'We are all in this together. As farms in the unit, we can get through this together.' He was vital in the recovery of the pigs coming from the sow unit for many farms."

It's no surprise that Ziemke has been awarded Hormel's Spirit of Excellence Award on three separate occasions over the last two decades. Hormel's Spirit of Excellence Award is presented to those who demonstrate exceptional quality, on-time delivery, and customer service and support, along with maintaining a minimum score of 92 on Hormel’s supplier rating index over the course of a 12-month period. The index score is determined by a universal measurement system that began in 1990 to ensure each supplier is held to the same standards.  Ziemke prides himself on receiving this accomplishment multiple different years through his meticulous standard of care and ability to provide an even-weighted group of pigs during all four quarters of the year. He described his favorite task on the farm is marking pigs when it’s time for harvest, and Yaros acknowledged his "excellent job coordinating marketing" played a huge role in receiving this award.

Selvik added to Ziemke’s achievements stating, "He is constantly in the top 20% for the least sort loss in the entire Big Stone Marketing Group."

Ziemke has also been a major asset in training employees. Selvik added, "he also has helped lead classes at Big Gain Feeds for other producers on identifying fallbacks and sorting strategy. The University of Minnesota has utilized Adam's knowledge at our facility to train their auditors for PQA+ as well as case studies and various other trainings."

Legislator of Distinction
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Rep. Rod Hamilton as the Legislator of Distinction award recipient. Representative Hamilton had his small-town Iowa eyes set on California following his high school graduation. Little did he know, a move to Minnesota to his aunt and uncle’s farm would direct his career path for decades to come.

Working on a small pig farm, milking cows and boxing groceries all at once encouraged Hamilton to apply for a single career venture with more structure. Though he didn't have much experience with pigs, a farm took a chance on mullet-haired, pierced-ear Hamilton. In 1992, two brothers within Christensen Farm's system bought the farm he was working on. Over the years, he worked his way up through the company starting as a herdsman and into the director of production, business development and human resources positions.

Within a short period of time, Hamilton’s community and industry involvement rose. A successful race running for the school board, Minnesota Farm Bureau membership, and participation in the Minnesota Pork Producers Association – of which he later served as president on the board of directors – provided a solid foundation for his career in politics.

In 2004, Hamilton and his employer agreed his running for a seat in the Minnesota Congress would be a positive step for pig farming and agriculture.

Leading with empathy, Hamilton's goal was always to help people and work together to find solutions with real-life experiences guiding his political positions and beliefs. His passion and appreciation for agriculture wasn't fully cemented until it became his profession, and now he remains fascinated by the role farmers and ranchers play in every person's life every single day.

"When you step back and realize that farmers and ranchers are less than two percent of the population, and they supply everything to the nation, you realize people can't survive without us," said Hamilton astoundingly. "What's cool for me is walking through the grocery store, or seeing kids coloring, or watching my brother-in-law give himself a shot of insulin and think, "I played a role in that.'"

Following his first appointment in 2004, Hamilton quickly became the leading voice for agriculture and rural Minnesota. In 2009, he became the Assistant Minority Leader and the Minnesota House’s third most powerful position, House Majority Whip, in 2011. In the 2011-2012, 2015-2016, and 2017-2018 session, he chaired the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance Committee.

As a member and chairman of this committee, Hamilton chief-authored the Agricultural Research, Education and Extension Tech Transfer program, which invests in Minnesota's next generation of agriculture-focused human capital annually. He also played a major role in providing equipment for the University of Minnesota's Veterinarian Medicine Lab and Animal Isolation Unit.

Two of Hamilton's proudest legislative accomplishments prioritized rural Minnesota. First being the transition from a two-lane road to a four-lane expansion of Highway 60, stretching from Bigelow to St. James. The expansion improved efficiency and driver safety for local residents and passers-by. Secondly, the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System supplied southwestern Minnesota residents with safe, reliable drinking water.

Mary Ann Christensen, Chair of the Board at Christensen Farms, provided, "Representative Hamilton is a proven advocate for Minnesota and American agriculture, and thank him for his 18 years of service in the MN House supporting the farmers of this great state in doing what they love and are committed to in producing wholesome and safe food to feed our growing population; from our neighbors to people around the globe."

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