Leslie McCuiston wears her passion for pig farming on her sleeve. It was evident why, after an extensive selection process including a third-party audit of on-farm practices and a series of written and oral interviews, the National Pork Board named her this year’s America’s Pig Farmer of the Year.
“We are pleased to have Leslie represent America’s pig farmers. She embodies the very best in pig farming,” says Terry O’Neel, National Pork Board president and a pig farmer from Friend, Neb. “It’s important that we share with today’s consumers how we raise their food in an ethical and transparent way. Leslie’s interest in sharing her farm’s story, as well as putting a face on today’s pig farming, will help us reach this goal.”
The enthusiasm McCuiston, a pig farmer from Columbus, Neb., has for pigs and the pork industry is as powerful as that of her two predecessors, Brad Greenway and Keith Schoettmer. Yet, McCuiston’s qualifications are slightly different, illustrating the diversity in the industry.
Clearly, she will serve as the first female pig farmer of the year, but that is not why she stands out. Many women embrace a career involving pigs, and pig farming is an excellent profession for females, notes McCuiston.
“Women are natural-born caretakers. In my experience, the pork industry has been very accepting and welcoming of women, who are a natural fit in livestock production,” she says with a smile. “The strength women show in leadership is really important. My teams alone — six out of nine are women. They are the strongest there are.”
Her career journey in the swine business was always open, but the path was not a straight one. Growing up on an Oklahoma beef farm, she saw her future in the beef industry before getting her higher education at Oklahoma State University. As a freshman, she started her college career majoring in psychology because she wanted to help people.
After missing the world of agriculture, McCuiston switched her major to ag economics and returned to her aspiration for a career in the beef business. However, a college internship landed a job with Cargill Pork, working in the entire pork chain from farm to fork, and the rest is history, she jokes.
Her career path has come full circle, managing pigs and people today as senior production manager at The Maschhoffs LLC, the largest family owned hog production network in North America. McCuiston believes in equipping employees with the right tools to provide the best animal care every day. She oversees 70 employees who care for more than 18,000 sows on 10 breed-to-wean farms in central Nebraska and South Dakota. “I have an amazing team, and really work to empower and champion those people I work with,” says McCuiston.
Every day on the farm she uses the skills and her rich experiences to nurture the pigs and their caretakers. The two years in college going through a psychology track was not a wasted effort; it gave her insight into what motivates people and what makes them think. “So, when it comes to working with people on my team, it helps me better to communicate with them. It helps me with how to get them to understand better what we would like them to do in caring for the pigs.”
It is her unique background — a perfect mesh of her love for animals and people with incredible business acumen — that raises her to the top in her leadership role on the job and as Pig Farmer of the Year.
As America’s Pig Farmer of the Year, McCuiston wants the world to know how much pig farmers care. “As pig farmers, every day we get up, and we want to do what is right for the pig. We want to do that in a way that is continuously sustainable for the environment. We want to do that in a way we involve the experts for the care, so the product the consumers purchase is safe,” she says passionately.
McCuiston officially kick-started her year Oct. 3 with Max Armstrong, farm broadcaster and president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, introducing her to the world live from Chicago. She continued sharing the real pig farming story throughout a 48-hour period, reaching millions through multiple media interviews, and finished the full schedule with an event attended by top food influencers.
Over the next year, McCuiston says it will be her job to tell the story of pig farming, putting a face to the occupation. “As America’s Pig Farmer of the Year, it is a privilege to share all those stories — not only my own, which is unique, but all those people I have worked with over the years. We all have unique stories and have different ways of raising pigs, but at our heart, we are passionate caretakers of pigs,” she tells National Hog Farmer.
McCuiston wants the consumer to see how much America’s pig farmers care. What is right for the pig is on the pig farmer’s mind daily. It involves an intensive, interlocking care network. “We involve our nutritionists. We involve our veterinarians. We involve experts in the field from an environmental standpoint, to make sure we are doing everything that is right not only for the pigs in the barn, but also for the environment — and make sure the products they consume are safe when it gets to their table,” she stresses.
Still, telling consumers pig farmers care is not as good as showing them, says McCuiston. As an industry, she firmly believes pork producers need to invite the public to see what happens in barns, whether through virtual experience or an in-person visit.
She understands firsthand that speaking to consumers can sometimes be uncomfortable for people who work with pigs every day. Interestingly, McCuiston openly admits there was a time in her life she too had anxiety about speaking to a room full of strangers. Nevertheless, it is too important for pig farmers to stay silent. She shares an important tip based on sound advice she received to get over her fear. Basically, you have to get over yourself. It comes down to caring less about what others think about you and focusing more on the message, she recommends.
It is important to spark a positive dialogue about pigs with the consumer. “Talk about the good stuff. There is lot of negative things that are being talked about. The important thing is to tell those [positive] stories, so the negative is not the only voice out there.”
What does the future hold?
The industry is embarking on an exciting future as the No. 1 protein consumed in the world, and the No. 2 in the United States. All the development and the investment in the industry makes it exciting to see what is in store for the years ahead, especially with all the technology and innovation helping the pig farmers to do things better, says McCuiston.
Pig farming is not just a job for her; it is a career — a sentiment many in the industry share. She invites anyone interested in animals and pigs to explore the profession by talking with individuals in the swine business, from farmers to others working in different segments of the industry. Following her example, an internship is a good way to learn if a career with pigs is right for you.
“We want the right people raising pigs, so we want to make sure it is the right fit for both sides. So make sure you are talking to people and learning more about it,” says McCuiston. “It is an exciting industry to be in. Get involved more and learn more about it. We hope you come into the pig industry.”
About the award
The National Pork Board named McCuiston the 2017 America’s Pig Farmer of the Year because she had the highest combined score from a third-party judging panel and online voting. The award recognizes a pig farmer who excels at raising pigs using the We Care ethical principles, and who connects with today’s consumers about how pork is produced.
The panel of expert judges met with the four finalists in early September. Members of the five-member panel were Brittni Furrow, Walmart’s senior director of sustainability; Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane; Kari Underly, a third-generation Chicago butcher, author and principal of Range Inc., a meat marketing and education firm; J. Scott Vernon, professor, Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences; and Brad Greenway, the 2016 America’s Pig Farmer of the Year and chairman of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.
This year’s America’s Pig Farmer of the Year finalists share a common passion with winner McCuiston — telling their farm’s stories to help put a face on pig farming. The other finalists for 2017 were Bill Luckey, Columbus, Neb.; Maria Mauer, Greensburg, Ind.; and Leon Sheets, Ionia, Iowa.
To be sure, America’s pig farmers represent the very best in agriculture and the NPB created the America’s Pig Farmer of the Year contest in order to recognize the best of the best in pig farming. This prestigious honor will be awarded annually to the pig farmer who best demonstrates and lives by the We Care ethical principles.