Growing up showing pigs in 4-H, Danita Rodibaugh was shaped at a young age as an advocate for American agriculture.
The Greentown, IN, native was raised on a grain and hog farm nine miles east of Kokomo, where her Dad always encouraged his daughters and son to take part in a variety of chores.
Immersed in Swine Activities
The parental encouragement also led her to participate in 4-H, which then took her to county and state fair exhibitions. There she met early mentors Bill and Maxine Nash. The well-known central Indiana Hampshire breeders urged her to try out for Indiana Hampshire Queen.
That led to the opportunity to become immersed in the swine industry, she recalls fondly.
Soon after, Rodibaugh gained another crown, Indiana pork queen. Back in the late '70s, that crown carried a lot of responsibility, which she says really helped launch her career of telling the positive story of agriculture throughout the Hoosier state.
“The Indiana Pork Producers Association in those days had just one staff person, Ron Westerfeld, who ran the association out of his garage,” she says.
She rode with Ron to county fairs and banquets, helped call on markets, visited producers, covered trade shows and participated in numerous parades.
“It was wonderful on-the-job training for speaking and interviewing. We would take a box of pork chops to the radio station and that way we would get free advertising for the state fair pork chop tent,” Rodibaugh explains.
In fact, the year she became pork queen was the first year the Indiana Pork Conference was held in 1975 in Indianapolis, IN. She helped plan that first conference and also began working with the women's pork group, the Porkettes.
Putting Her Degree to Work
Rodibaugh's bachelor's of science degree in consumer and family sciences/education has served her well in the many state and national positions she has held, and in dealing with pork nutrition, including her current position on the Nutrition Committee for the National Pork Board.
The pork industry has worked diligently to produce a quality product, and those efforts were especially rewarded two years ago with the announcement that Pork Board research had determined that pork tenderloin had surpassed boneless, skinless chicken breast in leanness, Rodibaugh comments.
The next breakthrough in pork nutrition will soon be announced, she reports. The required internal cooking temperature for pork products has been 160° F for many years, but later this year, the recommendation is expected to be dropped significantly. This announcement will launch a whole new push for pork nutrition education, she predicts.
She has also served as Pork Board president and has chaired its budget, nominating, compensation and administrative committees.
Trial by Fire
Rodibaugh has a wealth of experience representing the Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) in chairing environmental committees, and currently sits on the Pork Board's Environment Committee and the NPPC's Environmental Policy Committee.
She still laughs when she recalls how NPPC vice president and Minnesota pork producer Karl Johnson got her indoctrinated to the NPPC board. Her first committee assignment was to the Environment Committee — knowing full well she had no previous experience in that area.
“It was a steep learning curve that continues today, but it was also an incredible blessing being a part of dealing with the challenges we had on environmental issues,” Rodibaugh points out. Through the '90s, she made many sojourns to Washington, DC, to speak before congressional committees and also work on Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency environmental committees.
When she started those duties a couple of decades ago, water issues were front and center. She found the politics fascinating, highlighted by her encounter with a much younger mentor — Chris Novak, currently the CEO of the Pork Board. At that time, he was the environmental director at the NPPC.
“I remember sitting in an Environment Committee meeting of the Pork Board telling them that Chris Novak had then just been named the CEO of the Indiana Soybean Association. He is a great asset because when he was at NPPC, he did the best job at respecting producers for their knowledge and skills, knowing how to spread the right message to producers and holding our committee accountable,” Rodibaugh relates.
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The issues with water being discussed then reflect the same concerns being raised today — whether the method of applying manure nutrients to the land impacts water quality in neighboring groundwater and downstream sources. The jury is still out, she says.
But things have gotten much more complicated. “Water is still a big issue, but now we are into air and carbon footprint matters that have just made this whole environmental area so much more technical,” she comments.
The EPA's National Air Emissions Monitoring Study is in its second year and no results have been released yet.
EPA's proposed attempts to regulate dust on farms lacks science, and the models being studied on how to carry it out “are scary and could be punitive when farmers may not be doing anything wrong,” she states.
The Pork Board has an ongoing research initiative to produce a map of the pork industry's carbon footprint.
Trade, Ethics Posts
In the past year, Rodibaugh was elected secretary-treasurer of the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) and continues to serve on the Executive Committee.
What's unique about USMEF's current makeup is that all four top officers are livestock producers, including herself and Chairman Jon Caspers, a pork producer from Swaledale, IA. The other two represent the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Here again, Rodibaugh has had to get up to speed in a hurry to learn about the meat export business. After the boom time in 2008, 2009-2010 represents an expected downturn in the meat trade cycle. The gigantic quantity of pork shipped in 2008 “may have been an anomaly” based on unexpected gains in China from disease and access issues that favored sales of American pork to Russia.
Sales to those major players are down, and exporters say the current climate for pork exports is tough. Although the consumer demand is still there, the capital to pay for it has diminished. She predicts export totals may exceed some predictions for 2009 because January and February shipments held up better than expected. “As the economy recovers globally, U.S. pork will be well-positioned again,” she says.
Another equally challenging issue facing the pork industry is in the area of producer responsibility, says Rodibaugh, chair of the Ethics in Pork Production Committee of the Pork Board.
The Pork Board and the NPPC blended their efforts into the Responsible Pork Initiative, led by We Care, Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Transport Quality Assurance programs.
“These programs are about having the right tools in place so that producers know they are doing the right thing, doing what they believe in and then telling their story,” Rodibaugh says.
As part of that initiative, the two pork producer groups jointly adopted ethical principles at the 2008 Pork Forum for food safety, animal well-being, environment, public health, employee care and community obligations.
To provide a proactive message on those types of issues, the Pork Board developed Operation Main Street, an intensive training program for pork industry leaders. Producers take public speaking training to learn how to deliver a positive message. As of June 2008, more than 630 speakers have been trained to give presentations, the majority of those being pork producers.
What's exciting, says Rodibaugh, is that Operation Main Street is serving as the model for the Center for Food Integrity, with support from the United Soybean Board, to build an agriculture-wide program to tell the real story about agriculture.
In part, that message is being aimed at blunting persuasive messages by the Humane Society of the United States, which is increasingly attacking animal agriculture, alleging improper animal welfare.
Rodibaugh serves on the board of directors for the Center for Food Integrity, a Kansas City-based group supported by pharmaceutical companies, food companies and crop and livestock interests.
In addition, she serves on the Indiana State Department of Agriculture Advisory Board and a host of other positions at Purdue University.
Passion for Pork
Besides her outside activities for the pork industry, Rodibaugh works as office manager for the family's 350-sow purebred hog operation and grain farm located at Rensselaer, IN.
That includes accounting and recording duties for the four purebreds they sell: Hampshires, Durocs, Chester Whites and Yorkshires that are sold as show pigs and breeding gilts for 4-H and other junior programs.
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How does the 55-year-old mother of four grown children find the time to balance all these duties? “The key is keeping your calendar organized,” she responds with a ready smile.
But she admits it also takes a special passion for pork. “Producers need to be involved. They need to find their passion in the pork industry. We all need to have a personal sense of responsibility, find a way to be an advocate every day and speak out and spread the message about pork and pork production.”
Naturally, to be advocates, “pork producers need to make sure they are doing the right things at home on the farm, then tell the story of agriculture,” she reminds.
Questionable USDA Policies
An additional challenge that has arisen concerns policies coming from the new administration within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“I am really watching to see what their trade policy will be to assure that we don't become too protectionist, because agricultural trade is so important,” Rodibaugh asserts.
There has been an early push within the Obama administration and USDA to promote natural or organic food production. There is absolutely no science to support that this trend is healthier or safer, she says.
In response, agricultural commodity groups are gaining some unlikely partners in the environmental and land stewardship movements, who share the pork industry's views that the United States has to use conventional production procedures in order to feed a hungry world.
“If we are going to feed a hungry world, then we must stay with modern production practices and continue to improve the efficiency and use of biotechnology,” she urges.
Changes on the Horizon
With questions and challenges growing about the safety of food production, there's no doubt the pork industry will continue to forge closer relationships with packers and processors, retailers and foodservice provides to collectively provide a strong signal that food production is providing the safe products that consumers want, Rodibaugh says.
“We need each other, and we need to trust each of those who operate in the food chain,” she says. Producers will be having on-farm assessments performed as part of their commitment to responsible pork production.
“Retailers and foodservice need to trust us and know that those assessment programs are credible, so there is support up and down the chain,” Rodibaugh says.
Hopefully, that and other efforts will help put a face with the product being produced on the farm. “Consumers have to know that they can trust you, and we have to be able to communicate what our values are to them — and that we care for our animals, we produce a safe product and that we protect the environment,” she observes.
Some surveys done by the Center for Food Integrity confirm that despite all the negative publicity, consumers still basically trust farmers, meaning that producers just need to make an effort to reinforce those beliefs.
Being an ambassador for pork takes commitment. “I take every opportunity to spread the word that commodity pork is a very economical, healthy protein source,” she says.
At the end of the day, everyone needs to put their life in proper perspective. “Put God first, family second and everything else after that, because if you concentrate on faith and stay connected with God, that shapes how you treat people — and that is a golden rule that is very important,” Rodibaugh emphasizes.
The Hoosier native has found those principles valuable in organizational work. “Treat people the way you want to be treated and maintain that respect, and it makes a huge difference,” she adds. She has had some great friendships with folks she didn't agree with philosophically, but through mutual respect, they were able to work together.
And don't follow the old adage that the only way to get something done right is to do it yourself. “A characteristic of a strong leader is working to empower others, and always looking for opportunities to encourage others to participate, whether it is empowering someone to be on a board or a committee or passing along an opportunity to them.”
Rodibaugh's career has been one of distinction, receiving Purdue's Agricultural Alumni and Distinguished Alumni awards in 2007 and Indiana Pork Producers' Distinguished Service Award.
Community service activities extend from the church, 4-H and drug awareness programs, to county Extension board, parents' school advisory board and fraternity activities.
She also operates a wedding flower design business out of her home.