Entrepreneurial risk fundamental to farming

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Farmer and agricultural entrepreneur Jim Christensen was recently recognized by Iowa State University for his significant contributions to the Iowa farming economy when he received the CALS Floyd Andre Award. The co-owner of Christensen Feedlot and Royal Beef took his family farm in another direction, focusing exclusive on beef production raising corn for feed which has created a self-sustaining agricultural model.
Photo by Colin Van Westen

Spotlight on northwest Iowa Entrepreneurship Part 1

This is the first part in a three-part series discussing the unique climate and innovations originating in northwest Iowa. Local agricultural entrepreneurs share the role in research and development as a driving focus in innovation

Research and development is an essential component when breaking into the competitive agricultural entrepreneurial marketplace, just ask local agricultural entrepreneurs Jim Christensen and Brian Dalziel.

Christensen, a fifth-generation farmer located between Royal and Rossie, and his family partners, have transitioned the family farm his grandfather purchased so it exclusively focuses on beef production opening Christensen Farms and Royal Beef.

Nearly 20 years of experience in food preservation research led Dalziel to organize Heartland Ranch, a company which provides extended shelve-life beef products to convenience stores.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared Nov. 5-9 agricultural entrepreneurship week. The recognition marks the second year of the designation and is meant to highlight the importance of the partners who continue to support local economies across the state through agricultural entrepreneurship.

"My dad and my grandpa were strong in the idea that livestock production was really key to adding value to the grain and the crops in this area," Christensen said. "That has been the foundation we have built what we currently do. We started keeping records on individual bins of cattle in 1986. Before we did our Royal Beef expansion, we actually hired a guy to look at 20 years of our records and help tell us what we were really good at in beef production and what we were not as good at. We felt like, through the analysis of an independent person, we could grow the beef production business and compete both in the state and in the nation producing high quality beef at the cost below what would be normal."

"No one expects hamburger to be in a gas station, right?" Dalziel said. "I remember back in the early 1970s, when my dad owned a gas station. When people first put milk in a gas station people reacted, 'Milk in a gas station?' The convenience store industry was just being born in the Midwest and that was something that worked. People needed to pick up what were considered short shelve-life items in what were considered trips between the grocery store, and hamburger is no different from that."

Though Christensen and Dalziel share a passion for agriculture, and both stressed the importance of entrepreneurship to the industry, their companies illustrate the diverse paths entrepreneurs have available. Christensen's businesses are centrally located on three sites, while Dalziel's business contracts production to other companies using its distinct recipe and production methods.

"Each individual farm, for many generations out here, have been entrepreneurs of there own," Christensen said. "They have taken chances. They have risked everything to be in a business, produce food and provide for their families as a business. Entrepreneurism is just ingrained in me and my family. My wife's family is the same way because she grew up on a farm as well. Farmers are small business people."

"We don't actually have a physical office anywhere," Dalziel said. "We don't even have any full-time employees, nobody gets a W2 from this company. Everybody is busy doing other things. ... This is a virtual company and that is one of the interesting, beautiful things about this business model. Instead of identifying people who were looking for a job and who wanted to be hired, we grabbed the best and the brightest people. Everybody already was busy doing something, and we said, 'Hey, we need just a piece of you.'"

After Dalziel brought together professionals from government, academia and the business world to form what would become Heartland Ranch, the company tested and refined its methods, shared its products with local food banks and analyzed details of appearance, smell and how it responded to normal and abusive conditions all before selling a pound. This preparation was essential, laying the groundwork necessary to move into the competitive convenience store product market.

"Then we bought a refrigerated van and put the product in 10 stores and drove around to those 10 stores every week and saw how much was selling and wasn't selling. ... The stores gave us copies of their register tapes in data form and logs of transactions they had done. So not only did we know how much hamburger was being sold, we also knew what other items were being sold with the hamburger. That was a big deal. We were walking around saying things like, 'You know when people buy the hamburger, they are not just going to buy the hamburger, they are also going to buy things like cheese, noodles and supplies for dishes such as spaghetti and meatloaf.'"

Christensen said his children's involvement with Christensen Farms and Royal Beef is an example of what entrepreneurship means to agriculture in Iowa.

"They went to college and did other jobs for awhile," Christensen said. "When they wanted to raise a family, they wanted to come back to raise it here in rural American and be part of their own business. To grow that entrepreneurial spirit. What will the business look like in a few years? No idea. The business did not look the same for my grandpa or my dad and it won't look the same in the future. I just hope that future generations have the background and the knowledge where they can take the business in a direction they would like to go."

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