By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
— Bob Christensen was raised on a cattle, hog and crop farm near Sleepy Eye, and though his formal education ended with high school, his real-world acumen was just getting started.
Christensen, who died Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 51, started his agricultural business empire as a 4-H youth with three sows and grew it into one of the largest family-owned livestock production operations in the world.
The head of Christensen Farms oversaw hog operations in six states, had more than 1,000 employees and took in revenues of about $500 million annually.
A self-described non-traditional thinker, Christensen is being lauded for his ability to think a step ahead of the volatile farm-commodity industry.
“Without a doubt, he was an innovator. He was constantly learning,” said Minnesota Pork Producers Association Director David Preisler.
Said Mankato-based AgStar financial services head Paul DeBriyn, “Bob was a very intense individual and very much a visionary. It’s like he had one eye on the future and one eye on the operations of the organization. He was truly a pioneer in the swine industry.”
During the 1985 farm crisis, many hog confinement facilities were forced to close. Christensen’s non-tradionalist muse told him those vacant structures represented opportunity knocking.
He began paying area farmers to finish pigs in the buildings, a gambit that worked so well it led Christensen’s company to get into contract production.
He and business partner brother Glen also went down another unorthodox path. Recognizing that feeding pigs is a pork operation’s largest cost, the company built its own feed mill.
“You clearly have to be on the leading edge,” Christensen told National Hog Farmer magazine a few years ago. “But first and foremost, you need to understand the difference between the leading edge and the bleeding edge. Sometimes that’s a real fine line.”
As a massive pork-industry entity, Christensen Farms also was a fat target for animal-rights activists looking to expose abuses in sow barns.
In 2006 a Mercy for Animals supporter, posing as a hog operation worker, made an undercover video that purported to show rampant animal abuse.
Most of what was filmed was standard industry practice and defended as such by animal experts. There were also some instances of improper practices, which Christensen was up-front about and promptly rectified.
DeBriyn said the undercover video incident came as no surprise to Christensen.
“With the size of Christensen Farms, it was just a matter of time before something like that happened. He expected that someday someone would take a run at him.”
Preisler said Christensen was always sensitive to people’s concerns about odor and other hog production issues.
“He had a drive to do the right thing. Issues were addressed properly. He didn’t take shortcuts, and he never shied away from taking any responsibility.”
Far from being hindered by his dearth of formal education, DeBriyn said an institution of higher learning likely wouldn’t have been a good fit for the hard-charging Christensen.
“I think college might have held him back a little.”