For the first time in 66 years, North Carolina pork producer R.H. “Moe” Mohesky will not spend his day taking care of pigs and managing people. However, raising pigs is not far from his mind as he wraps up his extensive career in the pork business, passing the torch to a neighbor and fellow pork producer, T. Brewer. Yet, Mohesky will remain financially involved.
A son of dairy farmer, Mohesky started his pork enterprise with a greased pig captured at the county fair. Local purebred producers donated gilts for the contest and also bred each captured gilt for the lucky recipient with the understanding a pig would be furnished the following year to sustain the program. The goal was to launch the next generation of pig farmers, and that is exactly what happened for Mohesky. The one gilt quickly turned into a small herd and later a larger enterprise of 22 farms, farrow-to-finish.
Moreover, this 4-H experience also sparked his chosen career path. After earning his degree at the University of Missouri, Mohesky was hired by Cargill and eventually became manager of the international swine division. He says, “That flipped me in the hog business in a big way.”
For over six decades of pig farming, Mohesky and his wife, Shirley, have stood the test of time through adversities and triumphs. When asked how he survived all these years, he chuckles as he talks about surviving 10-cent hogs.
“Hmmm … You almost don’t. It gets really close to almost losing everything. As we mature, we are not going to do that again,” Mohesky says. “I remember one time buying feeder pigs and not even getting the value of the feeder pig back after you sold it and took care of it for four months.”
Economics is the driving force for Mohesky, and he says building equity is the key to surviving the cycles of the swine business. Success in the swine business means being a disciplined business person to remain competitive. He adds, “Most of my decisions were economic-driven. I always ask the question, ‘If we change something, what is the economic consequence?’ Don’t change to be changing. I was never one to be the first to change. I watched how it would turn out. I like to be in the first 10% to 20% if it is going to work.”
The swine business has transformed in different ways since Mohesky started his enterprise, and he has not been a passive player. In the early days, he raised feeder pigs outside in the woods with just an electric fence to keep them corralled, little investment and no buildings for shelter. “Obviously, the most things people talk about now — the humane treatment of hogs — they did not see how we did it then. They were lying out there in the frost and snow, piled up, and it smothered the bottom ones — that does not happen in a building. I remember on cold nights we drove hogs to keep them from piling up,” Mohesky says.
The rise of vertical integration was one of the largest changes during Mohesky’s swine business career. Raising feeder pigs in the woods was during the early years of integration. The business partnership allowed hog farmers like Mohesky to spread risk, build equity and invest in buildings to raise pigs indoors.
Mohesky explains that the Corn Belt was very against integration in the beginning. North Carolina producers were more open to the idea because it was already largely practiced by the poultry industry in the state, and that was used as a model.
Ironically, Mohesky served as the president of the National Pork Producers Council (1995-96) during a period when vertical integration was not a popular, acceptable practice. In fact, he was surprised that he came into a leadership role at the same time as all the controversy over integration, especially being from the state that was leading the change and seen as the black sheep of the group.
Yet, vertical integration is a realistic way to bring in the next generations of pig farmers. Beyond that advantage, integration also gives a new producer someone to teach them the business and provide the necessary resources. Mohesky says, “In the real commercial part of it, a young man cannot get in the business. It is too capital-intense. He has to either have a dad that is in it or work for someone that is in it. He cannot work from the ground up like I did. You cannot do that anymore.”
Still, Mohesky says it does not come down to one practice being better than the other: independently marketing or growing pigs on contracts. For all hog producers, it is important to understand the available marketing opportunities. He says, “The situation would be different in Iowa. Unless you are integrated here in North Carolina, you can’t be in business unless you niche market. There is really not another option.”
Furthermore, Mohesky says staying competitive in the swine business is about consistently improving efficiency. Through the years, genetics and better understanding of nutrition has moved the efficiency needle. He explains, “I can remember when 4 pounds per pound of gain was really good. You tried to beat 4. Now you try to beat 2.5.”
Mohesky says efficiency is the core to improving profit margins and staying in business. If the operation’s feed efficiency falls in the 4-pound range, then companies like Smithfield Foods will not be interested in being your business partner. Therefore, hog farmers must continue to strive for improvement.
Although Mohesky served on the first National Pork Board during the transition, he spent most of his leadership years with NPPC. His international experience with Cargill made him an ideal candidate for the NPPC Trade Committee chairman. In 2003-04, he also served as the U.S. Meat Export Federation Export chairman, during a time when China’s market opened up. Between Cargill, NPPC and the USMEF, Mohesky says he has visited about every country where hogs are produced. “I have had the opportunity to see a lot of different aspects of the industry and traveled the world,” he says.
Traveling worldwide was an eye-opening experience. Mohesky says it became vividly clear that the U.S. hog industry was the leader in almost all aspects, particularly in technology and meat quality. In general, the global consumer views U.S. pork as a safe, superior product.
As U.S. pork production expands, the additional meat has to be exported. Understanding the demands of the global consumer is essential in growing the market footprint of U.S. pork. For instance, in China Mohesky says the consumer is concerned about just putting food on the family table. In contrast, Japanese consumers are quite engaged in how the food is grown and the quality. He explains, “We are seeing that Japan psychology blend into some of our high-end market.”
Still, selling pork globally will not be without its challenges. Mohesky says the biggest obstacle is the non-tariff bearing restrictions — the executive orders that develop overnight that can shut down a marketplace on a dime. Competitiveness will also be present. Argentina, Brazil and Australia can sell pork cheaper, but the quality is not at the same level as U.S. pork.
Although Mohesky’s days will be slightly different going forward, he still supports the pork industry that has served him well. He is certain that consumers will always enjoy pork. Mohesky says, “I think people like to eat pork, and we have gotten over the health issues of eating pork. As long as we can produce a quality product, people will eat it.”
As for the swine business, Mohesky says consolidation, integration and globalization are all part of the future. Globalization could become a political issue that could curtail the activity of the pork industry. It may all depend on “who we elect president this next time.” Selecting the next Supreme Court judge will be a key issue for the direction of future regulations, he notes.
Over the years, Mohesky has willingly stepped up to take on leadership roles in various organizations from local to the national level. As a leader, he strongly believes in building consensus among members. Fostering harmony among a diverse group was important, especially during the time he served as NPPC president. While Mohesky always works toward encouraging unanimity, he is also not afraid to make a decision that guides the group toward its goals.
During his leadership within the pork associations, Mohesky says the environmental issues and the separation of the two boards took precedence. The consumer was not as tuned in to the world of hog farming. He says the instant information available these days has certainly fueled the consumers asking more questions about how pork is raised from humane treatment of the animals to the environmental issues.
For Mohesky, the consumers’ concerns over the environmental issues are always interesting. He says the consumer wants “natural” but is against the spreading of natural fertilizer. Although manure handling practices have evolved over the years, consumers still cannot get past the odor, Mohesky says.
As an employer, Mohesky is not a micromanager. He says a good team starts with hiring the right employees, and the fact his employees have worked for him for more than 15 years illustrates he is a respected and skillful leader. From the beginning, Mohesky plainly conveys his standards and his expectation that every task is completed 100%. He says it is important to clearly communicate the work plan to all employees, provide the necessary training and allow them to make decisions. In addition, he strives to foster a business environment that instills confidence and fosters a relationship in which they are not afraid to ask questions when necessary.
In general, Mohesky says over the years he has learned to train, delegate and audit. He believes in being involved enough to see everything is done right, but when things do not go as planned, he does not get angry. He says, “I will express my disappointment, particularly if someone repeated a mistake. You can make a mistake, but you should not repeat it.”
Humbly, Mohesky does not see himself as a “Master of the Pork Industry” but credits his success to great mentors — parents, 4-H leader, siblings and wife. While his parents were extremely busy farming and
keeping up with 11 children, he says their actions shaped his character. Both his father and mother were influential in the community.
His father supplemented the farming operation with custom baling and harvesting. In the community, he owned the first baler and combine, which made him a leader in his own way. His entrepreneurial spirit stood as a foundation example for his children.
Mohesky’s mother was a leader in community organizations. With a smile on his face, Mohesky says one of his proudest moments was when his mother was elected president of the church’s ladies club. He is not sure how she balanced it all, but her example shaped his leadership style. His mother also was the driving force behind 10 of her children receiving a higher education at a time when most youth only graduated from high school.
Without encouragement and coaching from his 4-H leader, Frank Dunkin, Mohesky would never have entered into the swine business. Above all, surviving 66 years in the pork business would not be possible without a supportive wife, Shirley. He gives her all the credit.