Christine Hamilton: SD ag's 'shining star'
OACOMA -- From her home on the Missouri River bluffs near Oacoma, Christine Hamilton can see her farmland stretch out across the plains.
Hamilton, 57, owns and manages Christiansen Land and Cattle Ltd., a fourth-generation farm and ranch business with 14,000 acres -- nearly 22 square miles -- of farmland, and enough additional land for 1,100 head of cattle. The land is located west of Oacoma and north of Kimball, scattered between Kimball and Platte, and east of Platte. Hamilton also manages Dakota Packing Inc., a wholesale meat business.
"I would like to be known as having a serious interest in excellence and what that means in production agriculture," she said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic.
Hamilton also serves, or has served, on the boards of numerous businesses, governmental entities and civic groups, including the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the South Dakota State University Foundation, the South Dakota Biotech Association, Dakota Resources, Home Federal Bank, HF Financial, the South Dakota Symphony and, most recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
"She is a very, very busy person," said Eddie Hamilton, her husband.
Barry Dunn, dean of agriculture and biological sciences at SDSU, has known Hamilton since 1997, when he was an associate with SDSU Extension.
"I think she is a great role model for all of us," Dunn said. "She is a person of high integrity."
When he was still teaching, Dunn took classes to Hamilton's farm and ranch, where, he said, students were shocked to see how accomplished she was at running such a vast agricultural operation.
"She's that shining star of success," he said.
Prep school to land baron
Hamilton found her calling inside an old, rented grain elevator in Kimball when she was 8 years old.
"When I was growing up, my job was to run the elevator for the wheat harvest," she said.
The work involved shoveling and sweeping out grain bins, working with rail cars, and pushing the button to start the leg of the elevator. Hamilton's parents, Dewey and Helen Christiansen, were almost always nearby.
"I was being carefully supervised," she said. "It was definitely part of my education."
Hamilton's father, who she described as a self-made rancher, started in the cattle business in his early teens.
"He was a character," she said. "A lot of people have Dewey stories."
Hamilton remembers riding around looking at the farm and ranch with her father in a pickup with old opera music bellowing from the truck's speakers.
"He was a little hard of hearing," she said. "So it was up pretty loud."
Hamilton's mother, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a law degree in 1929 -- one of only three women in her class -- was one of the first female lawyers in South Dakota. She also taught a semester at the University of South Dakota, where she received a master's degree in English.
"They had a very strong work ethic," Hamilton said of her parents. "Our lives really revolved around what was going on at the farm or the ranch."
Hamilton, her parents' only child, was born in Omaha, Neb., in 1955, but spent most of her childhood in Kimball, where she attended grade school and was involved in other activities, including piano lessons, accordion lessons and ballet lessons.
"There were times growing up that I felt like I was more in training," she said. "My biggest dream was being able to watch 'Leave it to Beaver' after school rather than practice the piano."
For her sophomore year of high school, Hamilton went to a school in Tucson, Ariz., where her parents had another home. For her junior and senior years, she moved again, this time to Miss Porter's School, a private preparatory school in Farmington, Conn.
"It was a little bit of a different experience," she said, referring to Miss Porter's School. "I jumped into the middle of a class system."
Notable alumnae of Miss Porter's include the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, former first lady and wife of former President John F. Kennedy, and Dorothy Walker Bush, mother of former President George H.W. Bush and grandmother of former President George W. Bush.
Hamilton then attended Smith College, a private liberal arts college for women located in Northampton, Mass., where she obtained a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
From there, she started law school in Los Angeles, but less than a semester later she dropped out, to her mother's dismay.
"I have a great appreciation for lawyers, but I couldn't be one of them," she said.
In the early 1980s, and only a few years after leaving law school, Hamilton became interested in business. She used a piece of land she had been given and invested in a business focused on treating seeds to increase crop yields.
"I committed the cardinal sin of mortgaging some of that land to invest in this venture," Hamilton said. "It didn't go well."
Humbled by the experience, Hamilton chose to pursue formal business training. Years later, she earned a master's degree in business from the University of Arizona, with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.
While attending business school, Hamilton met a man who, at the time, she said, she thought was the love of her life, though they never married. For about five years, Hamilton lived in California or Nevada while he climbed the corporate ladder within a trucking company.
After her father died in 1986, at 88 years old, Hamilton began returning more often to South Dakota to help her aging mother with the farm and ranch.
In 1994, Hamilton returned, on her own, to her parents' farm and ranch.
"It was always there," she said. "I think there was an expectation within the family that I would continue in agriculture because it's such a strong heritage."
In 1998, Hamilton married Eddie Hamilton, a veterinarian and retired veterinary science professor, and president and CEO of BioDak LLC., a bovine biotech company based in Kimball. With the marriage, Christine Hamilton, who had no children, gained four step-daughters, all adults who live in the Houston, Texas, area, and now has seven grandchildren.
After her mother died in 2001, at 95 years old, management of the family's farm and ranch fell entirely on Hamilton's shoulders. At the time, the family's farm and ranch spanned 33,000 acres, according to Hamilton. The pressure of running such a vast, fourth-generation operation was and still is intimidating.
"You really don't want to drop the ball on your watch," she said.
Adopted at birth
For all that Hamilton's parents provided her growing up, there was one secret they kept -- she was adopted at birth.
As a child, Hamilton remembers a classmate telling her she was adopted. Her mother denied it.
"It was just something that we didn't talk about in our family," Hamilton said.
Hamilton, who always suspected she was adopted because she doesn't resemble either of her parents, started investigating once she became an adult.
In 1995, after years of off-and-on research, Hamilton found a woman she believed to be her biological mother still living in Omaha, Neb., where Hamilton was born.
Hamilton decided to write her a letter.
"It was an interesting letter to write," she said. "You know, 'Hi, I think we're related.'"
The response was not what Hamilton had hoped -- the woman Hamilton suspected was her biological mother refused to meet with her. She even denied the two were related. For the time being, Hamilton gave up the search.
When the woman she thought to be her biological mother died in 2010, Hamilton obtained her own original birth certificate, which confirmed the woman was her mother.
Hamilton learned she wasn't an only child. She had two brothers.
When she met her older brother, Ted, in March 2012, it was the first time Hamilton had ever met anyone to whom she was biologically related.
Hamilton found her father, whose name wasn't listed on her birth certificate, in July 2012 after working with an adoption counselor. He had recently been placed in hospice care.
"I was able to meet him before he died," Hamilton said, "which was pretty dramatic."
Since unraveling the mystery of her adoption, Hamilton has gained a new perspective, and appreciation, for the life she has led thus far.
"It really makes me think about fate and all of those kinds of questions," she said. "It could have been very different."
Today, Hamilton's work in agriculture has become more than a career.
"Often the lines are blurred between what's personal and what's business," she said. "It's a lifestyle."
With technological advancements in the last three to five years, Hamilton said, the agriculture industry has changed more than ever before.
"It's way different," she said. "And the skills that are needed are way different."
As the industry has evolved, Hamilton has worked to keep Christiansen Land and Cattle at the forefront, adopting new technologies and participating in research and development. She said the business has one of the most extensive financial record-keeping systems of any agricultural operation in the state.
The business has eight full-time employees, plus Hamilton herself, and employs a handful of part-timers at certain times of the year.
Growing up in agriculture, Hamilton said, has given her an intuitive feel for the industry and helped prepare her for the realities of farming.
"You're totally at the mercy of the weather," she said. "You have to learn how to accommodate that emotionally."
Timely rains helped Hamilton's farm and ranch endure last year's drought, but the experience was still tense. As much as she tried not to "ride the roller coaster of whether it rains," with the severity of last year's drought, it was nearly impossible.
"It's very visceral," she said. "You look out the window and you see that the grass is brown and brittle and it's like walking around with a pin in your stomach all the time. It's very challenging."
Hamilton's success in agriculture has allowed her to pursue other business ventures.
Since 2006, she has owned Dakota Packing Inc., a wholesale meat business that provides beef, chicken and other proteins to casinos and restaurants in Las Vegas, Nev., where the company is based, and to other distributors in New York, Florida and Utah.
After selling 2,600 acres of ranchland near Gann Valley several years ago, Hamilton invested in Hematech Inc., a bovine biotech research company based in Sioux Falls. Earlier this year, Hematech was acquired by Sanford Health and was rebranded as Sanford Applied Biosciences LLC.
Hamilton and her husband are also involved in Iron Horse Development, a company that announced late last year that it planned to partner with the South Dakota Wheat Growers to build a full-service agronomy retail center near the new Liberty Grain facility between Kimball and White Lake.
Since January, Hamilton has served on the nine-member board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which meets eight times per year and provides insight into the economy to the Fed.
"It's been just an amazing experience and very reassuring," Hamilton said. "The caliber of professionalism and sincerity that I see there is really impressive."
In 2001, Hamilton established the Matson Halverson Christiansen Hamilton, or MHCH, Foundation.
"I really felt it was important to give something back and to try to make a positive difference," she said.
MHCH collaborated with Sanford Health and the University of South Dakota to create the Prairie Futures program, which supports nontraditional students in rural areas who want to pursue an education leading to a career in health care.
The program's first graduates received their degrees in May.
The program is meant to encourage rural economic development. It's also meant to encourage small towns in South Dakota to take advantage of the opportunities they have in their community, rather than trying to attract out-of-town industries.
"It's that involvement and engagement," she said, "that really makes a community."
Looking back, Hamilton described her life as a continuing process, rather than a series of past, defining moments. In her line of work, she said, it's natural to keep looking ahead.
"In agriculture, we're in tune with nature," she said. "It's always with the changing of the seasons. There is always next year."