When you talk with Tim Belstra you’re quickly struck by his even keel and his passion for the pork industry. His normally soft-spoken nature quickly dissipates as he explains how his family and employees have taken Belstra Milling from a small-town feed mill in northern Indiana to a diversified agri-business that supplies swine genetics to a large portion of the Hog Belt.
As a second-generation independent feed mill operator, Belstra has beaten the odds. His father, Albert “Bud” Belstra, bought the feed mill and Pillsbury dealership in DeMotte, Ind., in 1954. However, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when Tim, along with his dad and brother Max, really found their business stride. That’s when they partnered with PIC genetics to sell boars and gilts, which soon led them to construct full-blown multiplier herds surrounding their home base, which today extends into Illinois.
Belstra Milling has since diversified into the dairy sector and provides feed to one of the nation’s larger dairies. Yet for Belstra, his heart and energy remain in the pork industry as he continues to advocate forward-thinking strategies with action to back them up. He shares some of those thoughts here.
Q. How did Belstra Milling get into pork production?
A. We finished some hogs in the 1970s, but really our focus on swine came in the early 1980s. That’s when we started selling boars and gilts for PIC. In 1987, PIC said they needed a gilt multiplier so we decided to build Cambalot, a 550-sow, farrow-to-finish operation to raise replacement gilts. We’ve now refurbished that unit into a 4,000-sow, farrow-to-wean facility.
Q. How do you define Belstra Milling’s operations today?
A. We’re a custom-feed manufacturer, but we’ve also evolved into a genetics supplier and, in the end, a food producer. We’ve been making feed forever, we’ve raised hogs mainly since the 1980s, but today we’re food suppliers. That’s where we focus publicly today.
Q. Who has influenced you the most personally and professionally?
A. It would have to be my dad. He was always involved and teaching in subtle ways. In 1987, when my brother and I took over, he said we would then make the decisions for the business. I recall that one day I went to him to ask what he would do about something — he reminded me that I was in charge now but he would gladly offer his advice. He supported us but always kept teaching. We lost him just last year when he was 87.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge that you face today?
A. Currently, it’s our profits — or lack thereof. But long term, it’s the consumers’ perception of what we do as pork producers. That’s so important now because I recall in the early 1990s, we had visitors from overseas who would challenge us as American producers about animal well-being. We would kind of look at them with blank stares because we didn’t view that issue as a plausible risk to us here. Now, as an industry, we know that wasn’t right.
Q. What personal struggles have you had to overcome?
A. It was very tough when we lost my younger brother Max in 2000. We were growing with the new dairy feed business and it was a hectic time. He was only 48, and he did most of the hands-on things with the business. I had been focusing on the administration, but then I tried to do it all. That was a mistake. I reassigned some people and it has worked out very well.
Q. What do you see as the big challenges facing producers today?
A. Educating consumers. However, producers can’t simply rely on the good work by the National Pork Board. We must all keep stretching and growing. That’s why Belstra Milling has held a “day on the farm” to allow teachers, restaurant owners, grocers and legislators to get a real-life view of what we do. It’s the kind of openness that will help the industry.
Q. On a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 excellent, rate the public’s pork production knowledge.
A. I’d say it’s a “2” and that might be generous. The public doesn’t know any more because they haven’t had to know. We as an industry have been okay with that because we’ve provided good, safe and economic food to consumers, but that’s not enough today because there are groups telling consumers that we don’t take care of our animals. As producers, we know that’s not plausible, but consumers don’t know that well-tended animals reward you and neglected ones do not.
Q. How can the industry improve consumers’ perceptions of pork?
A. We have to engage consumers, beginning at an early age because we know the anti-farm activists are certainly doing so. That’s why it’s encouraging to see moves like that of the National Pork Board to create an interactive pork farm exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Natural Science and History. It will be similar to one about dairy farms that’s been on display for a few years already.
For many children, that is the only way they’ll be exposed to the truth about what really happens on a hog farm.
Q. Have you ever wanted to leave pork production?
A. No. But I will say that hogs elicit emotions unlike other livestock. We had to go all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court in the early 1990s to build a new produciton unit because neighbors thought manure would ruin the land. We won the case and we eventually won our neighbors over as well. We continue to talk with our neighbors on a regular basis to make sure they know what we’re doing.
Q. What’s the funniest comment you’ve heard from a farm visitor?
A. As a seedstock supplier, we observe strict biosecurity. However, in the 1980s this was a pretty far-fetched notion. We would have other local pork prroducers who wanted to drive out and see our units. We had to explain to them that we didn’t allow other producers inside our buildings because of potential disease transmission. They would finally understand, but they would still marvel by saying, “I can’t believe you have to take a shower first to see your pigs.”
Q. Do today’s lawmakers understand modern pork production?
A. Few do, but a vast majority does not. Due to our dialogue with our U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, he now asks for our input on pork-related matters from his office in Washington. One point that got his attention involved using the example of his district of 900,000 people
We told him that Belstra Milling produces enough pork to supply each of those people with four, one-quarter-pound meals of pork per week. Further, we told him that everyone in the district could have a couple of sows and raise their pork in their backyards, or we could raise the pigs out here in the country, where we do it away from most people and do it well. He quickly understood our point.
Q. What’s been your greatest success — and disappointment?
A. Because of what he’s meant to our business, I would say bringing Malcolm DeKryger into the company has been our greatest success. Since we brought him on back in the early 1990s, he’s been an instrumental part of our growth. Today, he’s our vice president and head of business development.
On the downside, it’s been disease challenges. We would just get going on all cylinders and then porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome would strike. In the past, producers have dealt with hog cholera and pseudorabies, but this one has been
Q. What’s next for yourself and Belstra Milling?
A. I just turned 60, but I love what I do. I have opportunities to run for offices such as the Pork Board. We have a vested interest in taking on new challenges like that. Also, we’ll keep exploring more new ventures to grow our business, such as selling weaned pigs to groups of producers outside of our area.
Beyond that, we have an employee stock-ownership plan in place. So long after I’m gone I know that Belstra Milling will continue doing what it needs to in order to grow while adhering to our core values.
Q. What do you enjoy about pork production?
A. I enjoy being part of the food chain. I’ve been in agriculture all my life and it’s about the people. Our company is kind of like a big family because of our business structure and how we’ve interacted with our community over the years.
My overarching personal satisfaction comes from knowing that we produce quality, safe and affordable food for people.
Q. What advice would you offer other pork executives?
A. Be proactive. Be visible. The days of just staying in your own little world are over.