Solar panels. Farm ground. These things weren’t in Jeff Atwood’s line of sight when he started raising pigs as a freshman in high school. But the pig business, he’s found, eventually has provided those opportunities for him and his family near Collins.

The 37-year-old Atwood grew up raising pigs alongside his father, Mark, who had a 20-sow herd. Mark quit the business in 1993, but Jeff continued to look for opportunities in pig raising.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with animals, and I always had pigs growing up. It’s one of those things. I think you either have it in you to be an animal caretaker or you don’t. It’s not one of those things that can be forced on somebody who doesn’t want to do it,” Atwood said.

He started raising his own pigs on a farm owned by his grandfather while he was a freshman in high school. Atwood said market conditions made it tough for the young farmer to flourish in the business initially. He owned some nursery pigs in 1998 when the hog market crashed.

“I lost money. I said I wasn’t going to do that again,” he said. By the time the last nursery pigs were hauled out in the early fall that year, the market was 30 cents a pound and falling, he says. So he adjusted his business plan.

After college he bought the farm, renovated a finisher there and with his dad’s help added a nursery. Since then, he started working with a local producer to raise weaned pigs under contract. Some of those pigs are kept on his farm to finish. Others are destined to other farms for finishing.

He’s found that this arrangement works best for him; his wife, Emily; and their two children, Kaylee and Cole.

“The custom feeding business has been very good for me,” he said. He enjoys raising pigs, and the contract takes some of the risk out of the business, he said.

“Some people don’t like that kind of a partnership because they feel like they have to control the complete process. I guess I just don’t feel like I need to have that much control over it,” Atwood said. “It’s worked out very well for me.”

Branching out
Raising pigs under contract has afforded him opportunities to do other things — like start a construction company with a partner, Porter & Atwood Construction.

The construction business compliments his work on the farm, he says, providing flexibility that a different off-farm job might not. The flexibility of the business allows for Atwood to tend to the farm when he needs to, he says.

Because of the income generated from raising pigs under contract, Jeff and Emily were able to build their own house and purchase two pieces of ground.

“I always thought that buying farm ground was out of my league, but after buying a piece and realizing you can actually do it, it just kind of opened my eyes to really try and focus our attention to that,” Atwood, a Jasper County Farm Bureau member, said.

Reducing energy costs
He credits his involvement in the pig business to creating those opportunities. His construction skills have also paid off while evaluating farm energy costs. He’s put up a solar panel system, which helps power his barns.

“Our electric bills were just getting crazy,” Atwood said. “I noticed that a lot of livestock buildings had been putting them up, so I looked into it.”

He purchased his own kit and, with his construction skills and some guidance from the state electrical inspector, put up a 17.6 kilowatt system.

Net metering through Alliant Energy allows Atwood to put electricity he doesn’t use back on the grid. He’s able to pull electricity off the grid when he’s consuming more than the solar energy system produces.

 Atwood says he’s optimistic of the future in the pig business, and he’s grateful for what it’s afforded him to do on the farm.

“Thankfully we’ve gotten into a position where it’s profitable; it certainly makes it more enjoyable.”