The world’s largest swine extravaganza is 30 years strong. Through the years, the location and activities may have changed, but it has always been about pork.
The 2018 World Pork Expo will mark its 30th anniversary by presenting the world’s largest pork-specific trade show with more exhibit space and more U.S. and international companies than ever before. Presented by the National Pork Producers Council, the Expo is June 6-8 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.
“The Expo’s 30th anniversary is a great time to look back at all we’ve accomplished as pork producers,” says Jim Heimerl, NPPC president and producer from Johnstown, Ohio. “But more important, it provides us with the perfect place to look forward to the many opportunities and advancements that lie ahead.”
World Pork Expo is a spinoff of the American Pork Congress, explains Ernie Barnes, the first general manager of the event, responsible for orchestrating the original team. Today, Barnes is the director of industry services for the National Pork Board.
American Pork Congress was a combination of the annual meeting of the pork producers and a trade show. After membership voiced a need for change, Barnes and other staff members led a task force to develop a new event. Barnes says 24 members sat on that task force. He remembers that number because the first vote taken was determining what month to hold the event, and every month of the year each received two votes.
After many discussions, the committee agreed to host the first World Pork Expo at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines in June 1988, distancing itself from the winter meeting circuit and before state fairs.
Changes over time
From the beginning, the priority has always been on education. For the first 10 years, Barnes says the activities at the Expo centered on educating the pork producer and consumer. “We had a lot more cooking demonstration, showing how to fabricate a carcass. We spent a lot of effort and time in inviting the consumer to come out,” he says.
World Pork Expo has taken several road trips of sorts during the past 30 years, as it was moved to Springfield, Ill., as well as Indianapolis, on separate occasions, ultimately returning to its home in Des Moines.
One of the largest changes over the years was including a national junior pig show. At first, the event only entailed breed shows. But when the National Junior Swine Registry was formed, the show was open to juniors nationwide. Each year the World Pork Expo Junior show sets new records for the number of pigs being shown. “Today, we will get 3,500 kids and parents just on the junior pig side,” Barnes says.
In the early years, the live pig shows and the barbecue contest brought in the crowd.
“In those first couple of years, we had 125 barbecuers, and one year we had 35 states represented,” he says. “We cooked enough pork just in the first year to make Guinness World Records for largest single protein-source barbecue. We cooked over 20,000 pounds in that one day.”
Coming from the South, Barnes wanted to show what a true barbecue contest looked like. He wanted to see all the characters promoting the product in a different way.
Due to concerns about the spread of foot-and-mouth disease which had surfaced in the United Kingdom, 2001 marks the only year the event was canceled. It also happened to be the year NPPC and NPB split into two separate organizations, following a 2000 national Pork Checkoff referendum. As the staff was assigned appropriately, John Wrigley, who was responsible for raising non-checkoff funds, was the only staff remaining in the Des Moines office for the NPPC. The NPPC board of directors was left with some decisions including hiring a chief executive officer, filling the Des Moines office and selecting a general manager for the World Pork Expo. “In December, I went to Barb Determan (president of NPPC at the time) and said ‘do you realize in six months we are going to put on World Pork Expo. Well, someone is going to have to do it. Either you will have to take charge of the event or I will’,” says Wrigley.
Determan, as a producer, did not fight Wright for the job. Wrigley, the NPPC designated survivor, became the Expo general manager through 2010. Many hands, including guidance from his predecessor, the Expo went off without a hitch including welcoming the new CEO Neil Dierks and the president of the United States.
It’s not just the youth pig show whose numbers increased greatly over the last 30 years. The number of trade show exhibitors has also grown, showing the surge in investments made by swine businesses, says Dierks.
Strategically, a focus of the Expo shifted. “Fifteen years ago, there was an effort to focus on the producer and the industry. We still get consumers coming to it, but it really laser-focused on the people that work and do business in the swine industry,” notes Dierks.
Wrigley explains further the trade show was geared for pork producers, not the consumer. The companies were there to see the producers — their customers. So, the shift was necessary to connect suppliers with the hog farmer.
A large number of hospitality tents is one noticeable change over the years. Barnes credits his successor Wrigley for recruiting more companies and organizations to host hospitality tents in the more casual setting. Today, there are more than 50 tents lining the streets of the fairgrounds.
“One thing I am most of proud of is changing the concept from being a consumer-oriented to a producer-supplier get-together,” says Wrigley.
Hog farmers return every year to see the new products and do a better job at raising pigs, explains Wrigley. The Expo provides many opportunities for learning through educational seminars and the conversations on the trade show floor or the hospitality tents.
“If you are brand new to the pork industry, you could not find any place that you can get more information on breeding, feeding, care and facilities. Everything you need to know is at the Expo,” stresses Wrigley. “The experts are there. It is the place to be to educate yourself and your staff.”
After three days at the event, he adds you will soon realize in order to stand in tune with the industry you need to return year after year.
While Barnes may not be the Expo head caretaker, he has attended them all. He says he has wonderful memories from the world’s largest pork-specific event.
Barnes says his most memorable times are near-misses where something went wrong and pork producers and staff pulled together for a make-it-work moment.
During the first Expo, they had more than 200 carcasses for the barbecue contest to break the Guinness World Record, but they had no idea how to serve the whole carcasses. Luckily, Hy-Vee meat cutters answered Barnes’ call and spent all night cutting up carcasses to serve product at 10 a.m. the next day.
Another mishap was when six tons of charcoal were stuck on a truck that broke down. The company could get it as far as Grinnell, Iowa, at 2 a.m. So, Barnes borrowed a ton-truck and, with a little help from friends, picked up charcoal necessary to serve pork the next day.
Dierks’ most unforgettable memory is when the White House called to say President George W. Bush was coming to the Expo. Preparing at the last-minute for the president of the United States means extra hands on deck, and the members stepped up to do what was necessary to greet the president in 2002.
Still, no matter the activities planned or the actions necessary to pull off the world’s largest pork-specific event, Dierks says it is all about the people. They are the best part of the event, he says. “It’s always for me about the people. I often called it a gathering of the clan because it is often the people you only see once a year.”
Every year, the Expo gives everyone the opportunity to connect with old friends and meet new ones.
“There is not an Expo that goes by that I don’t say ‘hi’ or have a short conversation with hundreds of people. That is what I love about the pork industry, whether Expo is going on or not. It is all the friends and the people we see on an annual basis,” Barnes says.
Dierks invites all pork producers to this year’s Expo, especially if they have never attended. He guarantees newcomers will be amazed by the trade show and information available during the event.
The other reason to attend is the interaction of people through the wide array of activities from educational seminars to one-on-one discussions with fellow producers and industry members.
“You will find it a very special experience, and you will have sore feet at the end day. But all the way home you will be thinking ‘wow’ and ‘what if’,” Dierks says.