By Matt Reese and Joel Penhorwood
Farmers working together can accomplish big things — few have demonstrated this better than Wendell Waters of Coshocton County who has played instrumental roles in several significant collaborative accomplishments in Ohio agriculture. Recently, Waters was recognized with the Pork Industry Excellence Award at the Ohio Pork Congress held in Lima.
“Working as a group for a goal — that always brings people together,” Waters said in a 2020 video for his induction into the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame. “If you have a common cause, you can work together to accomplish your goals.”
From teamwork with his wife, Marsha, to collaboration with fellow farmers on various boards, to the creation of a vital cooperative, Waters has demonstrated a keen ability to leverage efforts of others to make positive progress. Along with row crops, and hogs, the Waters were also involved in berry production for many years. Today, the Waters own and operate WenMar Farms which consists of a 3,600-sow farrow-to finish operation and 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
Brent Porteus, who farms, serves on the Nationwide Board of Directors and serves as a director of Coshocton Grain Company, has enjoyed learning from Waters for many years.
“I’ve known Wendell essentially all my life. He was a vo-ag teacher at Ridgewood, which is the adjoining school district to the one I grew up in. For a good while they also had PBF Farms which was a strawberry grower that he worked with. My mom always took us to help pick strawberries at PBF,” Porteus said. “Wendell was very involved with a commitment to local ag service. He would invite me to go to some ag events with him. He had a little brown S-10 pickup with a little perfume bottle in it, you know, to get rid of the hog smell a little bit. We’d travel many miles driving to meetings and seminars together. Many times, I wondered why he called to see if I’d ride with him. For a while there, I thought it was because he knew, in my younger days, I would not eat much salad. When he’d go to a meal with me, he knew he’d always have a second salad. That might have been part of it, but I really think the real reason was because he appreciated the opportunity to mentor and get other people involved in those leadership opportunities. Wendell was actually the person who got me involved in Corn Growers back in the mid 80s. He called one day and said, ‘Hey we have an at-large position open. Why don’t you go with me next week? We’ll go to the meeting and see if you have an interest in joining that board.’ We worked together on the election for the Ohio Corn Marketing Program. He served on that initial Ohio Corn Marketing Program Board and when he term-limited out, I actually followed him. Then when Wendell got really serious in the pork producing space again and as they started adding more buildings, we actually fed pigs for WenMar through Gerber and Sons.”
On the farm, Waters has a reputation for innovation.
“From business perspective he’s always been pretty innovative. He’s an early adopter but he’s never the guy that goes whole hog into something that he hasn’t had chance to prove. Whether it’s conservation tillage or the way he handles his manure or whether it’s the production system for his pigs or crop production technology systems, he cares about doing it right. He cares about the end result from improving the resource base relative to the soils he farms and protecting water quality or nutrient management,” Porteus said. “You just have to appreciate the way Wendell looks at the world.”
Porteus may be even more impressed with how Waters has served in many capacities off the farm. In the late 1970s, Waters joined the “Ohio Corn Rookies” — an informal group of farmers that met to discuss farm management techniques. As the group evolved, the farmers realized it was time to form an official organization to be a voice for Ohio’s corn farmers and the group founded the Ohio Corn Growers in 1977. Waters served the organization for 11 years in many capacities, including president. He also advocated for the Ohio Corn Marketing Program, which was established in 1989.
Porteus has watched, and learned, as Waters demonstrated a willingness to serve others.
“He is just very philanthropic in the community. He participates on a lot of the local leadership stuff, he was on school board for a while, Soil and Water Conservation District Board supervisor, Ohio Corn Growers, Ohio Pork Producers, Ohio Soybean Association, and then all the local pieces. Now he’s taking his turn as the ag person in the local United Way campaign that is very supportive of the junior fair sale and 4-H and those types of youth development programs,” Porteus said. “He just flat out participates and plays local, state and national leadership roles. Wendell is one of those guys that leads by example. His perspective and vision are strong. I really look at Wendell as a very strong mentor. He obviously protects his own business interests, but he does things on behalf of the industry too. Wendell is not just in it for Wendell. He’s one of those guys who always cares about the other people in the industry. You know a rising tide raises all ships. I think that’s really admirable. Not everybody does that and that’s always been an important focus of his leadership.”
On the hog side of the business, Waters played a key role in developing the PGI Group in 1994. This coalition of pig farmers lowered costs with standardized genetics, improved market prices through joint marketing and shared practices to improve production allowing smaller producers to compete in a quickly consolidating industry.
“I’ve always admired Wendell and others who established the PGI Group. In the early 2000s we were asked to join the group, which we did, and have been a part of since,” said Irv Bell, Muskingum County pork producer. “I came to really appreciate what Wendell meant not just to the swine industry, but to PGI in particular. PGI was really an effort for independent producers to align themselves to work together to achieve benefits that the larger integrators were able to achieve. It’s a good lesson in how to do things if you’re still going to be an independent operator.”
PGI Group set the stage for mid-sized hog producers in the region to grow their family operations.
“What is a really refreshing thing to me is the packer with whom PGI worked most closely with is now working with the second generation of PGI members which, I think, is a real testament to what Wendell and the others established back in the 90s,” Bell said.
The level of success of PGI required a clear vision and solid leadership at the start, which Waters brought to the process.
“Wendell was just an unassuming, quiet, effective leader. He just leads by example and doesn’t intentionally lead,” Bell said. “He does things the right way and he is extremely highly respected.”
The creation of PGI Group has been essential for the viability of the farm participants in the quickly changing hog industry, said Phil Cunningham, who raises contract hogs for WenMar.
“The whole pork industry has changed dramatically since the PGI was originated. It takes the PGI Group to get smaller producers the marketing strength they need. I really respect the integrity of Wendell and everything he does, striving for excellence whether it be for these farms or the community and the credibility that he brings to an organization such as PGI Group,” Cunningham said. “Wendell and Marsha are an excellent team — you’ve got to call it special. Sometimes Wendell and I would be driving around and Wendell would have an idea and I would wonder if he had run it by Marsha. He’d say, ‘Yeah, well no, but she’ll like it.’”
The couple has successfully worked together to build success for the next generation of their family on the farm and generations of many families throughout Ohio agriculture and beyond.
“They have the ability to analyze the operation, make changes and move forward,” Cunningham said. “To me, that kind of leadership and respect, it’s rare.”