Pork producers, industry experts and exhibitors shared their concerns and perspectives during a panel discussion at the Iowa State Fairgrounds during the 2022 World Pork Expo. (Photo: Jeff Hutton/Iowa Soybean Association)
Producers process pork issues
June 9, 2022 | Jeff Hutton
Sustainability, biosecurity, staying ahead of costs, finding workers and sharing a positive message was part of an overall theme this week at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines.
On Wednesday, situated at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, pork producers, industry experts and exhibitors shared their concerns and perspectives during a panel discussion.
National Pork Board (NPB) CEO Bill Even said the organization, following the desires of its producer members, is focused on a few key priorities:
“This is about trust and image,” says Even, adding the NPB is discussing wide-ranging issues like the prevention of foreign animal diseases like African swine fever (ASF), strengthening grassroots engagement and international trade.
Disease prevention and preparedness
On ASF, Even was blunt:
“If we’re not working together, we’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “This has to be a truly unified effort.”
The American public and the world for that matter, Eden says, already has had a taste of biosecurity concerns over the past 2+ years with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting every corner of the globe.
Dr. Jeff Kaisand, state veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), says ASF is a critical concern.
“One thing to keep in mind, is ASF is not gotten rid of right away,” he says, pointing to the 30+ years it took for Spain to eradicate the disease from swine herds.
With any serious infections or foreign animal disease, Kaisand says farmers must be vigilant.
Citing a line from the film Caddyshack, pork producers need to “See the ball, be the ball, control your destiny.”
“That’s something I cannot stress enough … with foreign animal diseases, it is in your control,” he says.
Kaisand pointed to lessons learned with the recent cases of Avian Influenza that impacted millions of chickens and turkeys across the country, including hard-hit Iowa.
It is, he says, about stamping out the disease as quickly as possible, being prepared at the first sign of trouble, notifying authorities, collecting and verifying samples and moving forward with mitigation efforts.
Where are the workers?
Animal disease is only one area of concern.
Agriculture, like other industries, is facing a labor shortage.
Even before COVID-19, Victor Ochoa, director of Swineworks LLC, says finding employees was proving difficult.
“We’ve never seen a labor shortage like this since World War II,” he says.
A spike in wages, more competition from other industries, immigration and the “Great Retirement” is making the worker shortage a real concern.
While COVID-19 did impact the labor market, workforce woes began a couple of years earlier, Ochoa says.
“It’s not an issue of people not wanting to work,” he says. “Baby Boomers were very loyal. But younger generations – we have to start thinking on how we attract these workers.”
Ochoa says younger workers are less likely to remain committed to the work since they can often find more lucrative-paying positions elsewhere. He says the pork industry must look at wages and benefits packages if they want to attract and retain good employees.
Sustainability and marketing
The buzzword du jour for consumers is sustainability, but the truth is that farmers already engage in sustainable practices.
Eden said pork producers are engaged in conservation, efficiency and regenerative agriculture.
“At the end of the day, this is nothing new for pork producers,” he says. “Every single day on our farms, we’re doing this. Our job at the Pork Checkoff is to tell their story. Let’s face it folks, we needn’t be afraid of this. We know what the consumers are asking for.”
Dr. Sara Crawford, president of Sustainable Environmental Consultants, agreed.
“Sustainability is what we’ve been doing as farmers forever,” she says. “It’s important to recognize that.
We have a fantastic story to tell in farming.”
Crawford says producers in all areas of agriculture, can offer data on a wide array of sustainable practices, including carbon sequestration. It’s a matter, she says, of highlighting that information to the average consumer, who is demanding “eco-friendly” practices in the foods and products they purchase.
“In agriculture, we need to shift our paradigm in thinking. We can show it to them, we can prove it to them,” she says.
As an example, Crawford cited better methods in controlling feed waste, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases, reduces the carbon footprint and cuts costs.
She says 78% of consumers want to purchase goods that are more sustainable, meaning pork producers need to do a better job of “branding” their products.
“How do we get them the easy button to understand that?” she says.
Telling that story, Crawford says should reflect more accurate headlines – especially when you consider all the environmental practices already in place means some farming operations are better than being carbon neutral, they are actually below neutral.
“That is really powerful,” she says. “Sustainability is here. Don’t be scared of it.”
Show me the money
Sustainability, finding workers and being prepared for an endemic like ASF are important to farmers, but if they can’t turn a profit, it doesn’t matter.
That was the message from Dr. Steve Meyer, an economist with Partners for Production Agriculture.
Pork producers, Meyer says, continue to face high input costs; everything from fuel to food.
“Production costs are going to be a problem for the foreseeable future,” he says, pointing to 2024 as to when costs might ease.
The good news is that consumer wanting quality pork is “still excellent.”
Meyer said consumers are averaging 220 lbs. of meat consumption every year, 50-52 lbs. of that pork.
“I’d like it to be 60 (pounds of pork per person), but it’s a darn sight better than 40.”
But Meyer cautioned that consumption should not be confused with demand, even though restaurants and grocery stories have returned to their pre-pandemic trends. Beef and chicken demand is up too.
The challenge remains, however, because input costs, labor woes, building costs, higher interest rates and a need to produce more pigs per litter, have impacted producers’ bottom line.