Pork event in downtown Des Moines, Iowa

(Photo: Jeff Hutton/Iowa Soybean Association)

Charting your own course

February 1, 2023 | Jeff Hutton

When it comes to farming or any vocation, you first need to learn how to FLY.

Elizabeth McCormick, a retired Black Hawk helicopter pilot, delivered that message at this year’s Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines.

“When you learn to FLY, you First Lead Yourself, and when you FLY, you will soar,” McCormick says.

Named one of the leading motivational speakers in the country, the Army veteran relayed to pork producers and other farmers how she went from being an unemployed military wife to one of the few women to pilot an Army helicopter.

“I was miserable,” she says, noting she felt stuck while her then husband was serving at Fort Polk, La.

But she began to think about what she wanted to pursue and discovered if she was going to soar both personally and professionally, she needed to learn to fly.

“I thought what would be the coolest job out there … Ah, helicopter pilot,” McCormick says. “I didn’t know if it was hard or not. I just knew that it felt right.

“Have you ever had that moment being at the right place, at the right time and where everything feels right? I could see myself out on that flight line, flying those helicopters.”

Farming, she says, has the same appeal to those out in the field.

“We have to believe in ourselves, our abilities, our potential, the potential in our farms, our families, our legacy, our future,” McCormick says.

Farming, like piloting a helicopter begins with belief in the possibilities.

“If you don’t believe in the possibilities and what is possible, opportunities will pass you by,” she says.

McCormick pointed out to the pork producers and others that they must get out of their comfort zone and into the Potential Zone.

“Magic happens when you try new things and you’re open to new ideas,” she says.

Her foray into the military and helicopter pilot training was met with skepticism and resistance, mainly because of her gender.

The military recruiter she initially met with did not want to sign her up, and despite his excuses, McCormick continued to ask “Why not?”

After finally conceding he had no good reasons why she shouldn’t pursue her dream, he offered one last obstacle to McCormick: “I don’t know how to do that paperwork.”

“He didn’t know how to do his own job,” McCormick says. “What would have happened if I had believed him, and not believed in me? My entire future changed because I was willing to believe in myself, my abilities, my potential, my potential zone.”

She says farming is a choice and despite the numerous barriers that continue to challenge producers on the farm today, success only happens if they take the controls, just like a helicopter pilot.

“You get to choose what you believe,” she says. “Your future is your responsibility. You’re in the pilot seat of your business, your farm, your legacy every day. There’s no autopilot in life and in business.”

McCormick says she nearly failed the eight-week course, but she continued to persevere and in the last week, passed the testing required to move forward.

“We all have days when things are not going our way,” she says. “What matters most is how you choose to show up on those days. When days are hard, people will remember later how you showed up in the tough times.”

Her flight instructor asked her “Do you want this?”

“Do I want this?” McCormick asks. “I needed to stay connected and committed to that feeling. You have to be the one that feeds the fire – to add a little jet fuel to your fire and rekindle it.

“Do I want this? If you didn’t, we wouldn’t have bacon,” she points out to the pork producers.

McCormick ended her presentation with a reminder to farmers that what happens today helps to shape the future.

“Practice makes permanent,” she says. “How you practice determines how we perform, how we show up, how we live our lives, how we work on our farms. Everything you do today builds your tomorrow. Be more intentional, be more deliberate.”

What’s for dinner?

During this year’s Pork Congress, Iowa’s pork producers also received an inside look at consumer demand and what the industry is doing to promote pork as the protein of choice.

James Nurray with the National Pork Board and Joni Bell, an Iowa caterer and restauranteur, shared their views on the importance of pork on the menu and in the meat case.

Nurray points to highlighting ground pork positioned alongside ground beef, chicken, turkey and plant-based offerings at different retailers, including Hy-Vee.

“We found that through our research if we were to put all the grinds together … it increased pork sales across the board,” Nurray says.

And recent promotions like bacon-wrapped pork loins at convenience store chain Kwik Star, also have proven popular as multiple customers purchased the loins.

Bell, who owns and operates Great Caterers of Iowa as well as The Rib Shack, is a big a proponent of pork. The Rib Shack is a popular destination for visitors to the Iowa State Fair as well as its brick and mortar location in Knoxville.

“We served 56,000 pounds of pork products this past year,” she says, acknowledging pulled pork and higher-end cuts of pork tenderloins are some of their top sellers.

Nurray says in 2022, domestic demand for pork had significantly increased over the previous year following COVID and supply shortages.

He says more pork is making its way to menus across the country. And while it is often viewed as a cheaper alternative to beef and chicken dishes, it doesn’t have to be.

“Nobody goes to a restaurant looking for the cheapest thing on the menu,” Nurray contends pointing to elegant and expensive cuts of beef that many consumers often select.

That said, he agrees when customers are shopping for pork at the grocery store, they are much more apt to buy pork because of its value and versatility.

Bell says she and her crew are trying to adapt new recipes featuring pork, including protein bowls and other dishes.

“We’re pushing different applications and preparing pork in different ways,” she says.

Bell and Nurray say continued promotion and marketing will help with demand, but pork producers must take a lead role in that effort.

“We need to be the ones carrying the message,” Nurray says.