Iowa Pork Industry Has Reasons to Smile

by 5m Editor
28 January 2011, at 10:32am

IOWA, US - The mood could hardly have been better for some 4,000 pork producers and suppliers this week as they gathered in Des Moines for the annual Iowa Pork Congress. reports that this week, the Iowa Department of Economic Development released a report showing Iowa pork had a record $1 billion in exports (equal to 23,000 pigs per day) during 2010, a fast recovery from just a year earlier when the H1N1 flu virus scare slammed export doors shut for Iowa producers.

Then on Wednesday, the April contract for lean hogs went up the market limit of $3 per hundredweight to $90 on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a big improvement from prices that had dipped below $50 per hundredweight 18 months earlier.

And while no one in the Iowa Pork Producers Association leadership would say so directly, producers had to be relieved that control of the governor's office and Legislature by Democrats, who had promised to try - unsuccessfully, it turned out - to get local control of hog confinements and more strict environmental controls, had been removed.

"The greater regulatory challenges we face now are likely to come more from the federal government," said outgoing pork producers President John Weber of Dysart.

Mr Weber turned over the president's title to Leon Sheets, 58, a hog producer from Ionia who markets about 24,000 pigs from 1,200 sows annually as well as farming 600 acres of corn and soybeans.

Mr Sheets even has time to maintain a 25-animal cow/calf herd, and he fertilizes his fields with the manure from his livestock.

"My operation is totally sustainable," said Mr Sheets.

Mr Sheets and Mr Weber chatted Thursday morning amid the bustle of the displays at the Iowa Events Center, and they made it clear that despite a big jump in hog prices and stronger export markets, they know better than to proclaim an era of permanent prosperity for Iowa's 8,300 hog producers.

"We're going to be feeding $6 corn to our hogs this year, and other input costs are rising as well," said Mr Sheets.

Iowa's hog producers have been a sort of canary in the mine shaft for agriculture.

Corn farmers and ethanol producers have just begun to feel the lash of negative public opinion over subsidies, corn syrup health issues and food vs. fuel debates. Hog farmers, meanwhile, became old hands at fielding criticisms during the last two decades as their industry shifted from the old-fashioned barnyard operations to the consolidated buildings where now about 70 percent of Iowa's 18.9 million hogs spend their five months of life.

"We did a terrible job on communications years ago," said Mr Weber. "All we had to do was to label the barns 'inside' production and I think we would have been much better. Instead we let our opponents call them 'confinements,' and the negativity stuck."

The switch to confinements made pork producers targets of animal rights activists who insist that pigs be raised outdoors, plus environmentalists and farm neighbors who have railed against manure spills and odors.

Mr Weber is no bitter-ender. He said "the complaints and regulations made us a better industry. A lot of practices that frankly were bad have been eliminated."

A more enduring problem for the new generation of consolidated pork producers has been lingering resentment from their fellow farmers and small-town neighbors who lament the passage from what Mr Weber calls "the Grant Wood" image of old-fashioned farming.

The pork producers have gone back to basics with their "Operation Main Street," which took Mr Weber and other association leaders into small towns for luncheon talks about the pork industry.

Mr Weber has visited more than a half-dozen foreign countries and has given seminars in Tokyo on the American pork industry. But he said going into Iowa small towns to talk pork was the most important duty he's performed as an association officer.

"Some of our severest critics are in the small towns, from people who used to be in farming or gave up hog operations as the industry consolidated," Mr Weber said. "But when a pork producer could talk business with them and explain the situation, I think we made some headway."

The messiest issue for pork producers, in more ways than one, is manure. Once unable to be given away, manure now is a high-value nutrient product that is a less expensive alternative to chemical fertilizers whose prices have risen erratically in recent years.

The Iowa Department of Environmental Quality succeeded in getting a ban on application of manure on frozen ground, with an emergency exception. An "emergency" happens when a hog barn's capacity overflows.

Mr Weber said he expects industry evolution to gradually take care of the problem.

"You have some older barns that were built back in the 1990s that are smaller and their manure storage isn't sufficient," he said. "The newer barns have storage that can accommodate a 365-day capacity of manure."