Sick pig farmer turns Mayo trips into research mission

YANKTON, SD (AP) — For Karl Schenk, a health crisis helped him find a new — and ultimately award-winning — economic opportunity to keep his farm viable for future generations of his family.

Last month, Karl Schenk and his namesake Schenk Family Farms received the 2021 Master Pork Award at the 2021 South Dakota Master Pork Producers Council Banquet in Sioux Falls.

Specifically, the farm has been recognized for the efficiency of its three-year-old pig operation – an operation that had its genesis, in part, due to a severe health crisis.

“Seven years ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we went to Mayo (clinic) quite often for chemotherapy and checkups,” Schenk told Press & Dakotan. “We started taking some of the back roads in northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota and stopped in some small towns, eating at cafes and you would strike up conversations with people.”

During these conversations, Schenk met a number of farmers who had successful farms that included two or three piggeries.

It was during stops in these small towns in Iowa and Minnesota that he also noticed something distinct: prosperity.

“It made you start thinking, ‘What works? because those small towns were so strong economically,” he said. “Their downtowns were full, two or three concrete businesses, the schools were nice and new.”

Schenk said it was during a treatment session that he had a conversation that made him seriously think about a pig farm.

“I was sitting in a chemo chair at Mayo and there was a gentleman next to me, and we struck up a conversation,” he said. “He was a pork producer in southwestern Minnesota and he raised about 30,000 head of finishing pigs. He didn’t hate anything about them and he would like to develop if he could. That’s what prompted me to start researching.

He said another factor in exploring diversification was family.

“With a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t very optimistic, your family crosses your mind a lot,” he said. “’How am I going to make this farm viable for those who want to come back?’ And after much research and discussion with many people, we decided that some diversification into the modern hog industry would be a great fit for our farm.

Since then, Schenck has added a total of five barns to his property – four finishing barns and a nursery – all rated for 2,400 head each.

“We operate these barns ourselves, which gives us income from work and we also collect rent from the facilities,” he said. “It’s a good return that exceeds the cost of financing.”

But perhaps the biggest impact was bringing the family back to the area. This includes his son-in-law Ian and Karl’s daughter, Meghan. Daughter Kyra returns on weekends while attending South Dakota State University and son Karl also plans to return.

“Between the farm, the barns and the symbiotic relationship, there is room for many family members to return,” he said.

Schenk said the award came as a surprise to him.

“I’m honored to receive it,” he said. “I’m fairly new to the pork industry — I’ve only been in it about three years. My family stepped in, my employees stepped in, and we all asked a lot of questions. We drank from a fire hose for a while, but learned a lot. We probably bugged a few people asking questions, but I think people like to be mentors.

He said the South Dakota Pork Producers Council looked at a number of facets of the operation, including that it had a mortality loss rate of less than 2%, a daily feed efficiency gain of 2, 7 pounds – the stats, according to Schenk, exceed many industry standards. Criteria reviewed also included environmental stewardship, animal care and employee care.

In addition to his hog operation, Schenk has also been involved in local agriculture advocacy with Families Feeding Families.

But he found that even with some of the controversies that have erupted in Yankton County related to value-added agriculture, one of the best approaches to advocacy is one of the simplest.

“It’s fun to sit one-on-one with people and show them how modern these barns are, how nice they are to look after, how comfortable the animals are, and how many variables can now be eliminated for the health of the animal,” he says. “One of the people who originally opposed the barns now works for me. He learned a lot, he appreciates the opportunity, and he realizes that some conceptions he had were wrong.He has a better understanding and appreciation today, and it just took a bit of calm and one-on-one interaction and first-hand experience.

Ultimately, Schenk said the award is a reflection of all the people — both family and employees — who have made his farm operation viable for generations to come.

“It’s a family and farm prize,” he said. “It’s not just me.”

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