At 16, Kenny Brinker’s life changed dramatically when his mom passed away. Suddenly, he was thrust into helping his dad care for his six younger siblings. An older brother was already working in town, so much of the responsibility fell on Brinker’s shoulders. He had planned to go to college after high school, but his dad said he would help him get started in farming if he stayed home and helped with family matters.
It was tough for a while,” Brinker says, getting serious as he recalls that time. “My youngest sister was in kindergarten and my oldest sister was 12 or 13. Every Sunday I’d make up a list for my sisters of what we would have for each evening meal for the week coming up. I’d get the meat out the night before. Two girls would do the meal one night and the other two would do the next meal. Dad helped as much as he could—he was dedicated to the family—but that was unfamiliar territory for him. We made it work.”
And work they did, taking on tremendous responsibilities at a young age.
“My oldest sister, Mary, and I developed a strong work ethic at a very young age,” Brinker says with a smile. “We tried so hard because that first year after Mom died, Mary and I put up 103 qt. of tomato juice and 300 qt. of beans. We were in survivalist mode; we were going to make sure everybody had plenty to eat.”
Brinker’s decision to remain at home set the course for the future and ultimately provided opportunities for his own children.
The business Brinker has arranged to pass on to his children now includes a 2,800-sow wean-to-finish operation, 4,200 acres of no-till crops, and a number of other diversified businesses, including a meat locker and a restaurant.
Good Business Decisions
The 180-acre home farm was near Washington, Mo., about 50 miles west of St. Louis. Brinker’s mom and dad had a few cattle and pigs, row crops and hay, but urban sprawl was becoming an issue.
“My brothers and I could have stayed and farmed in the Washington area for the rest of our lives, but with all the urbanization, it would have been a poor environment for our kids to try to farm,” he says. “So about 1990, we made the decision to look around and see if we could find another spot.”
Kenny’s brother, Ronnie, is two years younger, and Dale is six years younger. They each have their own farms but are partners in the hog operation, which is a limited liability corporation.
The farm was sold to the city, at which time Kenny bought the farm in rural Auxvasse, and his brothers bought farms there, too. The 1031 land transfer was used for the first of several times, which minimized the tax implications.
The farm in Auxvasse had been owned by a family corporation out of Michigan since 1963, but only one of the owners had seen the property in the 30 years they’d had it.
“They didn’t want to divide it or do owner-financing,” Brinker says. “I had formed the Brinker Farms Corporation and after talking to our attorney-accountant, Jim Crook, we came back with a proposal that allowed them to sell us the corporation rather than the land. That saved one layer of taxes for them. They took the offer immediately and we bought the 1,675-acre parcel at a substantial savings.”
Around the same time, Brinker went on a tour to see hog operations in North Carolina. Representatives of Pig Improvement Company (PIC) were in the tour group; they knew Brinker had bought the farm in central Missouri and they were looking for a gilt multiplication site. After advice from experts at the University of Missouri, and after PIC visited the site, Brinker reached an agreement to become a gilt multiplier for the company.
“Right after we bought the farm, we started building the first phase of the sow farm. Through our contacts we found Shane Sorrell, a young guy from Salina, Kansas. He came here to manage the operation when the first building was getting its roof put on, and he’s still doing an outstanding job for us,” Brinker says. “We communicated with him by phone and fax and would come up from time to time, but we still had our commitment with the two farms in Washington.”
After those farms were sold, Brinker moved his family to the Auxvasse farm, basically building it from scratch. He doubled the sow herd from 600 to 1,200. After a friendly separation with PIC in 2008, Brinker had the opportunity to gain a stake in the Triumph Foods plant being built in St. Joseph, Mo. He and his consulting veterinarian, Joe Connor, hold ownership in the plant with about 30 other midsized producers, he says.
At this time, the farm was switched from gilt multiplication to a 2,800-sow farrow-to-wean operation, which produces about 84,000 pigs per year. Brinker has 3,700 of the 42,000 wean-to-finish spaces, but the rest of the pigs are fed out by 12 growers in central Missouri.
“We have just seven people who run the sow farm and they do an excellent job,” Brinker says. “We’re currently running about 31 pigs per sow per year.”
Editor's Note: Read more about Brinker's succession plan in Part Two this week.