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First-generation farmer an industry leader

Master Farmers: Chris Hoffman never imagined himself as a farmer, but he’s found success on and off the farm.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

May 30, 2024

6 Slides

It’s been a long and winding 30 years of farming for Chris Hoffman.

“When I started this journey, I had $300 in my pocket and a small car loan. Did not own a thing,” he says.

Last year, his hog operation, Lazy Hog Farms, had more than $2 million in revenue, and he has $6 million in assets. Not bad for a first-generation farmer.

“Life as a first-generation farmer has not been easy, but if you work hard at making the right decisions, it can be rewarding,” he says.

Hard to believe for a guy who never envisioned becoming a farmer. His grandfather had 120 acres and worked in a factory in Sunbury, Pa. His mother grew up on the farm, and Chris would come out in the summertime. “But it wasn't like a working farm,” he says. “In the summertime I would help, occasionally, to make hay, but it wasn't the same type of thing where we actually had a farm.”

In fact, his dream was to go into law enforcement.

“My ultimate goal was to become a federal marshal. It was about helping people. I also was a big Westerns fan,” Chris says, adding that his father had a big collection of Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers books. “Law enforcement was always something that kept me rooted and grounded.”

Chris married soon after graduating from high school. He had to be 20½ years old to go into the State Police Academy, so he got his first full-time job at a local lumberyard.

He then worked for Weis Markets in Maryland as the company grew its footprint outside Pennsylvania. Months after moving to Frederick, he and his wife at the time came back home, and Chris took a job at a local factory.

Then, a friend of his who worked for White Oak Mills came calling one day, asking him to work at a 600-head farrow-to-finish operation in nearby Carlisle.

"I went in scraping pens. That was my job,” Chris says. “Working the finishing barns, loading the pigs, and within six months they made me an assistant manager. Within a year, I was asked to work for another feed company and manage a farm in Middle Creek, Lancaster County.”

He ran that operation, at the time owned by Pennfield, for four years. “Our production was really, really good, and it got noticed," Chris says.

Out on his own

When the farm where he currently raises pigs came up for sheriff’s sale in 1993, Chris put a proposal together to buy the property. The owner of the Pennfield facility, Leon Hoover, gave him a challenge.

“He said, ‘Chris, if you can make this happen, I will buy the animals and put them in,’” he says. “The owners wrote a letter to the bank on my behalf because we had very little money.”  

He bought the farm, tore down two finishing barns and built a 600-sow farrow-to-feeder pig barn. Hoover bought the animals. Chris kept an existing finishing barn, reopening it as his "sow palace.”

"So, you talk about Prop 12, I had Prop 12 back in 1994,” he says. “I would breed the sows, put them in stalls, they would stay in for 49 days. Then they would move to the sow palace. Once ready to give birth, they would come back into the farrowing pens, and the babies would go into the nursery. We did really well during that four years, and I got my debt paid down.”

In the late 1990s, Hoover got out of the hog business. Chris found a partner in Purina, which was looking for sow facilities to invest in. Chris built a gestation house with 1,000 crates, a farrow-to-wean operation. But Purina also needed a nursery. So, he bought an adjacent 35-acre property that had an old house on it. He built a nursery and isolation barn and turned it into a 1,400-sow farrow-to-feeder pig operation.

After Purina had a change in management, Chris was asked by Wenger’s to manage another farm just across the mountain from his own farm. He ran a 1,500-sow farrow-to-finish barn and was asked to run other farms owned by the company. Between 2000 and 2004, Chris managed eight sow operations —10,000 sows at a time — along with 53 employees.

He resigned and came back home to run his own farm, but then Smithfield Foods called in 2006 asking him to manage farms for them. In 2008, he started managing a 100-acre hog-finishing operation in nearby Lewistown, which he later purchased.

Then, in 2012, he bought a pair of chicken houses across the street from his hog operation.

Start of Lazy Hog Farms

In 2018, Country View Family Farms, which Chris was raising pigs for, went a different direction in its business. The next year, he bought the herd and Lazy Hog Farms was officially born.

Today, he is 100% independently raising 1,200 sows and more than 30,000 weaned pigs a year. He raises 4,000 finishing hogs at a time that are marketed through Leidy’s. His 45,000-head chicken operation is under contract through Empire Kosher.

He owns 250 acres, including 60 acres of woodlands. All the farmland is rented to other farmers with the stipulation that they must use the farm’s manure as fertilizer.

"The input is less for the farmer, and for me, the manure is an expense,” Chris says. “But it also can be an income driver for them as well. They get a really good, high-yielding crop, and so we work out the payments and what it costs them through a program that works for both of us. In some cases, the crops go to the mill where I buy my feed. So really what it is, it's like a circle. So, I'm buying the feed, they’re producing the crops, our manure goes into the ground. And so, it's like a closed circle. It's what I call the circle of life.”

Being an independent producer isn’t easy, he says. The past few years have been especially difficult given the weak market for pork and rising input prices.

“You don't have the ability to set prices. I have to constantly try to make sure I’m a step ahead of rising feed prices and the like. It takes a lot of management to keep it going,” Chris says. "It's really about understanding the production, because it's about pigs per sows, it's about pigs out the door. Because the better I can do, the better opportunity I have to have more pounds going out. That makes money. Being efficient, all those things are so, so important. Every little bit is pennies on the dollar that we need to work at to be able to try to be profitable.”

So, what’s his advice to others wanting to be independent producers? Think small.

“It's not as difficult as you would think. We're in a different world today,” Chris says. “When I started you could never have said, ‘Hey, I got this pig, I'd like to sell it to you. I grew this. It came from our family farm. Here's the amount of money I want for it.’ Today, it's all about the consumer. Consumers are willing to pay more. I could have 100 sows and likely make a living for a family these days, just by marketing directly to consumers.”

Spokesman for farmers

Although hogs are his business, many outside farming will most likely recognize Chris as the face of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He is the organization’s president and travels much of the state promoting the industry and visiting farmers.

"I think what makes me successful is, I’m kind of able to bring real life to the situation of farming," he says. "I'm always willing to have a conversation, whether you agree with me or not. It doesn't matter. It's about laying the facts on the table and saying, ‘Here's why we do what we do. This is why we need this.’ It's really about creating a system where everyone is truly engaged and involved."

Being involved in the community was something he learned early when he bought his first farm. “When I first bought the farm, the community fought me,” Chris says. “But now they embrace me. I got involved in a lot of things, trying to ingratiate myself to the community.”

Along with Farm Bureau, Chris has been a member of the Penn State board of trustees since 2015. It allowed him to award his son, Christian, with a diploma when Christian graduated from Penn State Harrisburg in 2019. "That's the highlight of all the things that I did. I was just honored to have my son as someone who I can give his diploma to," he says.

Christian got a job on the farm during the pandemic and now works full time for Chris. He is set to become the next-generation owner at some point in the future.

In 2019, Chris was awarded the America’s Pig Farmer of the Year Award by National Pork Board.

"I never thought I had a chance in the world to get that award,” he says. “ I’m just a little guy from Pennsylvania, but it was such an honor to be able to represent our farm, our family, our community.”

But regardless of the awards and his public image as a face of farming, Chris is just happy to be in the business. It’s been a long, winding road that he never envisioned, but he has no regrets.

"I'm a first-generation guy, so I didn’t have nest eggs. It was tough at times," he says. "But it's just the love of being here. You sit here and you look at the mountains. Being able to work with my son, those types of things, it makes it worth it.”

Chris Hoffman at a glance

Operation: Lazy Hog Farm LLC in McAlisterville, Pa.; 1,200 sows and more than 30,000 weaned pigs a year; 4,000 finishing hogs; 45,000 head of Kosher chicken.

Family: Wife, Selina Hoffman; son, Christian Hoffman.

Ag and community involvement: President of Pennsylvania Farm Bureau; president of PFB Foundation of Agriculture; board member of Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council; member of Penn State board of trustees; member of Pennsylvania State Grange; member of Good News Church; past chairman of county Republican committee; 2019-20 America’s Pig Farmer of the Year, by National Pork Board.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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