Julie and Ken Maschhoff sit in a conference room in front of a map denoting the 460 contract farmers, or “production partners” connected to The Maschhoffs LLC. The company has grown from a family pork farm to one of the largest producers in North America.
Julie and Ken Maschhoff sit in a conference room in front of a map denoting the 460 contract farmers, or “production partners” connected to The Maschhoffs LLC. The company has grown from a family pork farm to one of the largest producers in North America.
CARLYLE, Ill. — The Maschhoff family has been involved in agriculture for more than a century, but the past 20 years have seen the farm become big business. Still, family is key.

The Maschhoffs LLC now is the largest family-owned pork production business in North America and the third-largest pork producer overall, behind only Smithfield and Farmland Foods. That is due largely to the vision of the four owners: brothers Ken and Dave Maschhoff and their wives, Julie and Karen, respectively.

The recent purchase of GNP Co., a major poultry producer in Minnesota, represents the first foray into poultry for the company. But it is by no means the only acquisition.

The enterprise includes 460 independent pork producers in nine Midwestern states — dubbed “production partners” by Julie Maschhoff.

“What set the tone was our very first production partners were extremely ambitious, young producers who wanted to do things right,” she said. “They were willing to invest their own dollars into an asset of their own, but still partner with us and trust that we would bring them the additional resources to make them successful.

“We began working with a lot of young farmers. As they became successful they became the role models for people in their communities. That word of mouth spread, and we attracted more people like that. Today we have an exceptional production partner base because we’ve always had the more ambitious-minded farm families looking for new ways to grow, prosper and bring that next generation to the farm.”

The Maschhoffs offer independent producers the opportunity to farm at the scale necessary in today’s “get big or get out” agriculture climate.

“There is a lot of realization in agriculture that things can’t necessarily be the way they used to be,” Ken Maschhoff said. “The technologies are evolving and we have to feed a growing population around the world. If they want to keep that next generation on the farm they have to think differently.”

He added that the vast majority of farms under the Maschhoff umbrella are comprised of multiple family members — usually two or more brothers. Joining the company allows them to grow their farms without sinking into massive debt.

“It is a way for them to broaden their income base other than their grain operation,” Maschhoff said. “Today, getting into beef, poultry, dairy or pork on your own is almost unheard of. Their options are to look at producers like ourselves and say, ‘Who would I like to hitch my wagon to?’ Early on, we found that there were some of those producers were a little leery. Once they got to know us, our reputation has helped us along.”

The Maschhoffs have a solid footing in agriculture. John and Mary Maschhoff immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1851 and established a farm in southern Illinois. The family has been in Washington County ever since.

The Maschhoffs produce 4.8 million pigs annually. Primary customers are Hormel, Cargill, Farmland and Swift.

About 6 percent of total production goes to a plant the company operates in Des Moines, Iowa. That product is sold as The Maschhoff Family brand in area supermarket chains.

“We’re the largest producer in the world that does not have our own packing plants,” Ken Maschhoff said. “We’ve chosen not to because we have very good relationship with our customers. It would put our customers in a bind if we weren’t able to supply them. It really hasn’t been necessary.”

While the GNP purchase represents the first expansion into a protein market outside pork, it isn’t the first outside acquisition. The Maschhoffs also own two other non-ag companies.

It purchased First-Light USA, a flashlight manufacturer, in 2004. That company markets products invented by a University of Illinois agriculture student and has found important markets.

Initially sold to law enforcement groups, the flashlights have since been marketed to the U.S. military. They now are present in all 1,580 of the Army’s Abrams tanks. Another acquisition is Las Vegas-based American Paving Preservation.

“That’s true diversification,” Maschhoff said. “The people here know we have those companies, but that’s all. They don’t deal with it. (GNP) is a different strategy. It does truly connect and tie into things we do.”

The Maschhoffs recently opened an office in St. Louis, largely in order to accommodate customers from around the country and internationally. That office is populated by 27 employees.

The company employs 38 people in its environmental department and recently added a full-time lawyer to its legal staff.

“We’re the only one of the top 10 pork producers who haven’t had a lot of mud on us,” Ken Maschhoff said.

While the family business has come a long way from the hands-on pork operation of 20 years ago, the focus is similar.

Ken Maschhoff serves as chairman of the board and sits on boards of companies owned by The Maschhoffs. Dave Maschhoff also spends a lot of time at the Carlyle headquarters, though he also travels as a consultant to feed mill groups.

“We’re all here most days,” Ken Maschhoff said. “All four of us are basically doing the same things we did 20 years ago.”

Obviously, the owners have had to adjust to some differences in their daily schedules. Julie Maschhoff, who heads up the company’s public relations arm, also spends time on the road through education and lobbying efforts.

The idea of going public is not one that the Maschhoff family is seriously contemplating.

“Only if there were an opportunity from synergies standpoint and growth opportunity that made so much sense that we should do that,” Ken Maschhoff said. “There is probably enough downside to making that choice. I would not want to say never. But at the same token, we’ve enjoyed being private and we continue to grow that way. There are no outside investors. It’s just Julie and me, and Dave and Karen.”