Ailing pork farmer turns trips to Mayo into research mission

Rob Nielsen
Yankton Press and Dakotan
Karl Schenk, far right, recipient of the Master Pork Producer award is joined by Bob Thaler, from left, from South Dakota State University, Mark Vanderwerf, Farm Credit Service of America and Master Pork Producers, Tyler Bates of Boehringer-Ingelheim and fellow Master Pork Producers, Ian Grassel and Jeremy Nelson.

YANKTON, S.D. (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 were recognized with the 2021 Master Pork Award at the South Dakota Master Pork Producers Council's 2021 Banquet in Sioux Falls. 

Specifically, the farm was recognized for the efficacy of its three-year-old swine operation — an operation that had its genesis, in part, due to a serious 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 the Press & Dakotan. "We started taking some of the backroads through northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota and stopped in some of the small towns, eating in cafes and you'd strike up conversations with people."

During these conversations, Schenk met a number of farmers who had successful agricultural operations that included two or three hog barns.

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

"It made you start to wonder, 'What's working?' because these little towns were so strong economically," he said. "Their downtowns were full, two or three concrete companies, the schools were nice and new."

Schenk said it was during one treatment session that he had a conversation that would make him seriously think about a pork operation. 

"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 from southwest Minnesota and he raised about 30,000 head of finishing pigs. He didn't hate anything about them and he would like to expand if he could. That kind of got me to start looking into it."

He said another factor in exploring diversification was family. 

"With a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which isn't very optimistic, your family runs through your mind a lot," he said. "'How am I going to make this farm viable for those who want to come back?' And after lots of research and talking to a lot of people, we decided that some diversification into the modern swine industry would fit our farm very well."

Karl Schenk says the Master Pork Producer award is a reflection on all of the people — both family and employees — that have made his farm operation viable for generations to come.

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

"We work those barns ourselves, and that gives us some labor income and we also get a rent from the facilities," he said. "It's a nice return that outpaces the cost to fund." 

But perhaps the most important impact has been in bringing family back to the area. This includes his son-in-law Ian and Karl's daughter Meghan. His daughter Kyra comes back on weekends while attending South Dakota State University and his son Karl also plans to return.

"Between the farm, the barns and the symbiotic relationship, there's 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 pretty new to the pork industry — only been in it about three years. My family stepped up to the plate, my employees stepped up to the plate and we all asked a lot of questions. We were drinking from a fire hose for a while, but we 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 considered a number of facets of the operation, including the fact that it has under a 2% mortality loss rate, daily gain of feed efficiency of 2.7 pounds — statistics Schenk said top many industry standards. Criteria examined also included environmental stewardship, animal care and employee care. 

In addition to his swine operation, Schenk has also been involved in agricultural advocacy locally with Families Feeding Families. 

But he's found that, even with some of the controversies that have come in Yankton County attached to value-added agriculture, one of the best approaches for advocacy is one of the simplest.

"It's fun to sit down one-on-one with people and show them how modern these barns are, that they're enjoyable to take care of, that the animals are comfortable and so many variables can now be eliminated for the health of the animal," he said. "One of the people who initially opposed the barns now works for me. He's learned a great deal, he appreciates the opportunity and he has realized some conceptions that he had were incorrect. He has a better understanding and appreciation today, and it simply took some calmness and some one-on-one interaction and some first-hand experience."

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

"It is a family and farm award," he said. "It's not just me."