Leon Sheets, pig farmer from Ionia, Iowa, is passionate about his livelihood, and with consumers wanting more information about how their food is raised, he feels “all of us need to step up when our consumers are asking questions about what we do on our farms, how we raise the livestock that we put in the processing facilities for them to consume, what we do and how we do it.”
Sheets is ready to lead the way for U.S. pork producers as the National Pork Board announced Sheets as America’s Pig Farmer of the Year for the remainder of 2017-18 program year. The previous winner, Leslie McCuiston, stepped down after taking a new position in the agricultural industry where she will not directly work with pigs, which is an ongoing requirement for the role.
Sheets was one of the four finalists when McCuiston was chosen for the title.
Raising pigs has been a life-long passion for Sheets, who started farming with his grandfather when he was a young child. Sheets raises 33,000 pigs on his farm in northeast Iowa, where he focuses on animal care and environmental sustainability. With the help of his staff, son Jarrod and wife Barbara, Sheets also grows corn, soybeans, hay and cover crops. The Sheets’ daughter Justina and her family live at Colo, Iowa, near Ames, and he is glad that his grandchildren are able to spend time on the farm, where grandpa can share his passion.
“Working with pigs has been a rewarding profession,” Sheets says. “Every morning I wake up to new challenges, along with knowing what to expect when I head to the barns. Living on a farm is more of a lifestyle than simply a job. I look forward to sharing my passion and experience with others.”
Being comfortable telling the pig farmer story comes easily for Sheets. “I am most comfortable in the barn,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the noisy background, my best interviews are if we get you in the barn and I can sit on a gate or sit on my pickup tailgate, that’s when you get the best interview from Leon.”
He feels that he is at his best when he speaks from the heart, which is most all the time, because he is so passionate about what he does. That from-the-heart message resonates with consumers because “they see that I am speaking about what I know, what I love, rather than reading a script.”
Sheets’ main talking points
“We are doing the right thing on the farm every day, for the animals and their care and well-being,” he says. “We’re doing that for the safety of our staff and ourselves, and for the safety of the environment, and we’re concerned that we’re doing things right for the community. … there are people out there who tell us we are not doing it right, but I’m here to tell you that we are doing it right on my farm every day.”
The Sheets’ nursery and finisher barns have been opened up for curious visitors to see exactly what America’s Pig Farmer of the Year is so passionate about, and Sheets is very open to any question that they may have. “When they left, the information that they were looking for, they got what they were hoping to find. … I certainly want to get their questions answered, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll get them in touch with people who will know.”
He has found that consumers mainly want to know what goes on on a pig farm, how you do things, why you do things, and what’s right for the animal.
Terminology can create hang-ups and stumbling blocks for today’s consumers. “Forty years ago if we would have just talked ‘inside’ and ‘outside production’, and now we use ‘modern production systems’, it would have been better than using ‘confinement’,” he says. “If you put a fence up around pigs that are raised outside, they are confined.”
Raised in the Britt, Iowa, area, Sheets wasn’t certain what he wanted to do, but when he graduated from the South Dakota State University in Brookings an opportunity with a large swine genetic company developed. He was doing sales and service for the company, calling on a sow unit in northeastern Iowa. One Monday morning he walked into his manager with good news and bad news. “‘What’s the good news’ he asked.” Sheets gave him an order for 700 sows and 35 boars. The bad news: Sheets resigned from the genetics company to go work for the sow unit, which is now his own operation after buying out other partners in the late-’90s.
In addition to being passionate about pig farming in general, Sheets has frequently mounted the soap box to speak of the dangers that lurk when doing “routine tasks” such as washing, maintenance and nutrient transfer. He knows all too well what can happen if precautions are not taken, as he saw and felt his barn explode when he was power washing Sept. 15, 2014. He is a survivor, but he lives with the scars on his face and hairless arms. After hearing of two southwestern Minnesota women who were not as lucky and could not escape a similar barn fire in May of 2015, he renewed his message to talk on the dangers.
Though his term as America’s Pig Farmer of the Year will mainly put him in front of consumers, Sheets will not pass up the opportunity this platform gives him to spread the message of safety to his fellow producers.
“With the unexpected change, the National Pork Board reached out to our America’s Pig Farmer of the year judging panel,” says Terry O’Neel, a pig farmer from Friend, Neb., and president of the NPB. “The panel unanimously voted to elevate Sheets, a finalist from last fall, with the move adopted and supported by all members of the National Pork Board.”
For McCuiston’s part, she says, “First and foremost I would like to congratulate Leon and thank him for graciously stepping into the role of America’s Pig Farmer of the Year. He is a great representative of what pig farmers do every day. Although it’s bittersweet for me, on a personal level, one must evaluate professional opportunities as they are presented. I am excited to continue working with pig farmers and veterinarians in my new role.”
The annual 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. Sheets will serve in the role until a new America’s Pig Farmer of the Year is announced in October.
And that suits him just fine, because in Leon Sheets’ world every day is great. “And you know what tomorrow is?” he asks. “It’s a GREAT day to be a pig farmer.”