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Pork Congress attendees optimistic despite economic downturn

Article cover photo
Aaron and Trish Cook visit with Brian Waddingham, executive director of the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers, during the Iowa Pork Congress last week. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Aaron Putze, APR, ISA communications director

Thousands of farmers and industry leaders gathered in Des Moines January 22-24 for the Iowa Pork Congress presented by the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

Frigid temps and messy, snow-covered roads didn’t dampen enthusiasm or deter the sharing of information and ideas at the show. More than 4,500 people and nearly 300 trade show vendors participated in the 47th edition of the pork congress.

I traversed the event’s trade show, attended information sessions and visited with industry leaders. As expected, the conversations yielded a bountiful crop of opinions and forecasts impacting pig and soybean production.

Here’s a sampling…

Market access

“I’m the only independent (pig producer) remaining in the county,” said pig farmer Jim Boyer of Ringsted.

The Emmet County producer also grows soybeans and corn. He said access to market opportunities for farmers like him is a challenge.

“Some of us are trying to build alliances and there’s some opportunity,” said Boyer while making his way through the congress’ expansive trade show. “But it seems more and more that you either have to get big or get out.”

Boyer’s no novice at the business. His career in pig production began in 1996 with 50 sows. In 1997, he constructed his first finishing unit.

“You have to stay positive, but it’s getting harder to make it work as an independent,” he admitted. “There’s opportunity but you better know your stuff and network if you want to survive.”

A solid year

The past year was one of growth for Iowa Select Farms (ISF) and more is expected in 2019, said Jen Sorenson, the company’s communications director.

“Increases in pork production creates an exciting opportunity for Iowa soybean farmers and benefits the state’s economic vitality,” she said.

Sorenson said there’s been a corresponding uptick in the construction of new feed mills and the expansion of existing production. In 2018, the Iowa Falls-based company purchased 168,000 tons of soybean meal, up from 133,000 tons in 2016.

“The feed partners we do business with have grown with us,” Sorenson said.

The need for additional feed production and pig spaces will depend on successfully resolving ongoing trade disputes with key U.S. customers.

“Trade barriers are not helpful,” Sorenson said. “It’s important to get them removed so we can export more pork to China, Mexico, Japan and the European Union.

“Doing so would generate more pig production in Iowa and increase demand for the products we grow locally to feed them, including soybeans.”

All systems go

The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF) will celebrate its 15th anniversary in May. Its booth was a popular destination during the two-day pork congress trade show.

Farmers who have been served by the Coalition and those seeking its counsel circled the CSIF booth, evident that there remains considerable interest in raising livestock and poultry.

“There’s cautious optimism,” said Brian Waddingham, CSIF executive director, when asked about the odds of expanding Iowa’s livestock herd this year. “We’re seeing some momentum in the cattle, turkey and poultry industries.

“Pig farmers are a bit more reluctant (about expansion) right now,” he added, but that could change if there’s progress on the trade front.

Farmers are calling on CSIF (800-932-2436) for help developing expansion plans so they’re ready to move on construction the moment economic conditions are favorable. Others are wanting reassurances that their farms comply with rules and regulations.

The aisles of the Iowa Pork Congress trade show were busy last week with farmers and industry representatives learning about current trends in the pork industry. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Optimistic about 2019

Aaron Cook and his wife Trish raise pigs and grow corn and soybean near Winthrop in Buchanan County.

Soybean yields in his neighborhood were decent in 2018, he said, but not great. Most fields averaged in the 60-bushel-per-acre range.

Despite ongoing trade disputes and slim margins, Aaron’s mood is positive.

“The past year was tough but I’m optimistic about 2019,” said Aaron. “There are always challenges, but there’s potential for this year to be a good one.”

The presence of African swine fever in China and continued global uptick in consumer preference for protein will offer opportunities for U.S. pig farmers.

“I believe we’ll continue to see more people (in developing countries) move out of poverty and want to eat better,” he said. “There’s every reason to expect that diets will continue to improve, and few can produce a better product than U.S. pig farmers.”

The Iowa Pork Congress is an annual must-do for the couple.

“It seems like we’re always in a big hurry these days,” Aaron said. “It’s important to make time to visit with the people you do business with. The show gives Trish and me the chance to do that.”

Attack on science

“Pushbacks against science will limit improvements in food production, harming the health of people and the planet,” warned Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis.

Featured in the movie Food Evolution and a specialist in the field of animal genomics and biotechnology, Van Eenennaam keynoted one of the Congress’ information sessions.

She cited irrefutable proof of the benefits of science and technology to people and the planet and encouraged farmers to join her.

The adoption of new breeding methods and genetic improvements in soybean, pig, dairy, corn, cattle and poultry production have increased productivity per acre, animal and bird. Van Eenennaam said these achievements have helped feed more people using fewer acres and less energy per bushel, gallon, pound, egg and bird produced.

“As just one example, there’s been an almost 370 percent increase in production efficiency attributed to genetic improvements through artificial insemination,” she said.

The misinformation spread by competing business interests is premeditated and purposeful. Opposition to technological improvements increases tribalism and leads to the rapid spread of misinformation.

“We raise 56 billion broilers today, but we’d need an additional 18 billion birds if we still had the genetics we were using just several decades ago,” Van Eenennaam said.

“How do you get more meat with fewer animals?” she asked rhetorically. “You can only do it by having more productive animals and you need better science and genetics to get the job done.”


Contact Aaron Putze at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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