In the mid-'60s, U.S. pork producers were in a fix. Pork sales were stagnant, genetic improvement programs languished, and the industry had no formal platform or structured organization to take up the charge.
Rewinding the tape to May 25, 1966, we find a group of relatively young, forward-thinking pork producers gathered at the Holiday Inn near the airport in Moline, IL.
A small group flew in from Kansas. A busload arrived from Nebraska. Others car-pooled from Iowa, Illinois and adjoining states. This was not the first meeting for many who had gathered at various times and places for nearly a decade.
The informal headcount was 90. And on that day in May, the group was a little more focused, dedicated to coming away with a plan to canvas U.S. pork producers about their priorities for industry programs and to generate the funds needed to get the job done.
A young Iowa pork producer with a reputation for showing champion market barrows, Roy Keppy, stepped to a microphone and stated, in part: “We've been going to meetings for years, talking about problems and what to do. Let's make this meeting count. If we (continue to) do the same thing — go home and hope someone else will do the work — this will have been just another meeting.”
It wasn't just another meeting. Those in attendance — now affectionately known as “the Moline 90” — developed a master strategy to organize pork producers and launch a more formal funding initiative. By late afternoon a stack of $100 checks and pledges served as seed money to move the strategy forward.
Plans were drafted to poll up to 50,000 pork producers, asking them to prioritize their needs and wants for pork promotion, production-based research and the structure of an industry organization.
That Was Then, This is Now
Fast-forward to August 2009. Forty seven years later, pork producers and allied industry partners are, again, in a real fix. With 20 or more consecutive months of red ink, the consensus is that pork supplies must be reduced. But sow and gilt slaughter counts throughout the spring and summer reflect a reluctance to trim the nation's sow herd. A “let-the-other-guy-do-it” attitude appears entrenched, while red ink continues to flow.
Recently, the National Pork Board, the guardians of Pork Checkoff funds, has distributed a survey designed to guide their short- and long-term strategic planning.
Such surveys usually ask participants to rank various initiatives from 1 (not significant) to 5 (extremely significant). Commonly, industry issues and concerns clump around ratings of 3 and 4, with a few outliers at both ends of the spectrum. Often, it's the outliers that set a new course and raises the bar.
If you'd like to participate in the National Pork Board's survey to help prioritize the allocation of your checkoff dollars, go to their web site. Time is running out, however. Surveys must be submitted by Aug. 21.
I'm a firm believer in obtaining input from all factions of the pork industry — particularly, as it relates to how Pork Checkoff dollars are spent. I'm hopeful that our industry leaders will find the insight that our predecessors found in Moline nearly five decades ago.
Good Problem Gone Bad
Part of the problem - if you want to call it that - is that most everyone in the pork production business today is pretty darn good at what they do.
For example, even though the U.S. sow herd has declined by over 3.5% in the last couple of years, reproductive performance continues to trend upward. USDA quarterly pig crop reports show production per sow has increased roughly 10% in the last four years.
Some of that gain is attributed to the effectiveness of the circovirus vaccines in saving more pigs (2007 unvaccinated sows vs. 2008 and later vaccinated sows). While the overall health of the U.S. herd continues to improve, so, too, have genetics, nutrition and care. These are all good things, of course, but they are exacerbating the supply “problem.”
Prominent industry consulting economist Steve Meyer offers this guide to the production reduction needed: “If we are to reduce output to drive prices up, we must reduce the sow herd by a larger percentage than the productivity growth.”
Seems simple enough, but it will take a commitment reminiscent of the Moline 90 to resolve the industry's financial woes. It's time to reach back and pull out some of the “for-the-good-of-the-industry” fortitude shown by our predecessors so the composite sacrifice will be less painful and, hopefully, just as fruitful as their leadership.