Growing up 6 miles west of Tulsa, in the northeast Oklahoma community of Sand Springs, Tre' Smith didn't have much interest in commercial pork production, or agriculture for that matter.
He admits he loved animals and his time in FFA, but prior to his senior year in high school, his aspiration was to help people protect, restore and maintain their oral health. Then he was introduced to the Oklahoma Pork Council.
"I got to know Tre' when he was part of our Youth Leadership Camp during his sophomore year of high school," says Nikki Snider, OPC director of marketing and communications.
"At that time, he showed pigs but didn't have much knowledge of commercial pig farming. After the YLC experience, Tre's goal of becoming a dentist changed to working in pig farming."
"Dr. Scott Carter was there, and I knew when they introduced him, and he talked about the [Oklahoma State University] Swine Research and Education Center [in Stillwater] and all that, I was dying to get involved," Smith says.
"I was still in high school, and so right when I graduated, he contacted me to come back."
Smith wasted no time. After graduating in May 2018, he packed his bags and moved to Stillwater to begin working in the OSU swine barn that summer. He stayed with a co-worker before the dorms opened for fall semester and he was officially enrolled.
Since then Smith has worked extensively at the OSU swine farm to learn the day-to-day operations.
He often reaches out to Oklahoma pig farmers to learn more or shadow them in their jobs, and was part of the National Pork Board's Real Pig Farming Student Social Forces team in 2019.
For these reasons and more, Snider says Smith embodies the characteristics of a rising star in the swine industry.
From FFA to YLC
Even though Smith didn't grow up with agricultural roots, he often found himself drawn to a photo at his great-grandmother's house. It was a picture of his older cousin showing pigs in FFA.
"I've always loved being around animals. That was something I've always wanted to do, but seeing my cousin do it — I just dreamt of being able to do that one day — and it was sad because I didn't have a 4-H club in my area, so I had to wait until I could join the FFA," Smith says.
"But also, I remembered when I was in elementary school, seeing some show kids, and they had their FFA jackets on. I don't know, but it was so cool — and that's what I wanted to do."
Smith excelled in FFA, winning proficiency awards and state degrees, as well as some scholarships. It opened his eyes to raising pigs, but it wasn't until he attended the Oklahoma Pork Council's YLC that he had the opportunity to see the commercial side of the business.
A week-long program, the YLC offered high schoolers in grades 10 to 12 an opportunity to see all aspects of the pork industry — including live animal production, processing of hogs, further processing of pork and retailing pork, as well as career opportunities.
During the camp, participants completed a live animal evaluation, and they actually harvested and processed the hogs they evaluated. They also discussed issues that affect pork production from outside the farm.
"The most surprising thing to me now is how close the swine industry is, and how everyone truly knows everyone," Smith says. "It's almost like a sense of community in the industry, and that's something I really like."
Experience on and off campus
That sense of community is what drove Smith to leave his friends and family in Sand Springs to get a jumpstart on his education in the swine barn.
He says at first his relatives and acquaintances were surprised at his ambitions in an industry they knew very little about; but after seeing his passion for it, they have been nothing but supportive.
Dedicated in 2014, the Swine Research and Education Center is a total confinement facility that features modern waste and odor management technologies, as well as an indoor facility for swine judging.
The swine center houses high-quality Yorkshire and crossbred sows, along with commercial pigs used for nutrition research.
The herd is known for its outstanding purebreds, with numerous national show champions and high-selling boars through the years.
"For a while with the unit, it was more or less being that person that could reach out to the common public and tell them what was going on," Smith says.
"I really enjoyed being with the sows. That's kind of what I enjoyed the most while at the farm, was being in the farrowing house.
"But whenever I can reach out to people and tell them all we have going on this week, that week — I really enjoy that."
Now a junior at Oklahoma State University where he is majoring in agricultural communications and marketing, Smith spends time off campus finding opportunities to work with Oklahoma pork producers.
He credits the faculty at OSU for pushing him along in his studies — specifically Carter, who supervises the swine unit and is an associate professor in the OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences; as well as Jim Coakley, herd manager at the swine center.
"He [Carter] kind of keeps me in line, and Jim Coakley taught me a lot about the hands-on in a larger scale, and taught me so much about farming that I didn't know," Smith says.
In July 2019, Smith was one of 13 college students selected by the Pork Checkoff to represent the #RealPigFarming Student Social Forces team. Candidates were selected based on their involvement in the pork industry and their strong communication skills.
For six months, Smith was an official advocate for the industry, showcasing commercial pig production to his social media followers, from New York City to Los Angeles.
"I really wanted to put a positive light on the industry, and I felt like I could bring that to the swine industry, bringing a positive vibe and showcasing how much work goes into this large industry that people don't know really anything about," Smith says.
Smith has not only been communicating on social media, he's also been freelancing articles for industry publications.
"I've learned the importance of communication and how important it is to have proper communication with the business," Smith says.
"I think the thing that surprised me the most, because growing up, I didn't ever think about communication for a business; then you realize, yeah, that is a major role."
While the future is a little uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith looks forward to finishing his last two years at OSU.
He hopes to get a job working in communications for a commercial swine business. He also hopes to accompany North Carolina pig farmer Rhyne Cureton on a trip to Uganda sometime in the near future.
While there, Smith will get the opportunity to teach livestock husbandry, primarily for pigs, as well as basic agricultural practices to Ugandan farmers.
"It is for small swine operations out there, to help them run more efficiently with what they have," Smith says.
Smith recognizes he is coming into an industry that has been jolted by supply chain disruptions and labor shortages due to the pandemic, but he is keeping an optimistic outlook.
"I really feel that in this time, we have to stay positive, and remember to also tell your story. A lot of people aren't at work, so they are spending more time on social media.
"During this time, we could be pushing more of our true stories, broadcasting our stories, because like I say, 'If you do not tell the story, someone else will be more than happy to do so,' " Smith says.
"I feel like we have to stay positive about our industry at this time, and I think we could grow from it. We've learned a lot from it because right now, our world is ever-changing."