Kevin Estrem currently farms with his brothers, sons and nephews in their corn, soybean and hog operation near Nerstrand, Minn., about an hour drive south of St. Paul.
The family is also involved in a sow unit elsewhere in Minnesota. The Estrem Farms hog barns near Nerstrand are currently used to contract finish hogs.
Despite the current market situation, Estrem, in his second term as Minnesota Pork Board president, remains upbeat about the future in the swine industry.
National Hog Farmer: How do you keep the next generation of Estrems excited about the swine industry?
Kevin Estrem: You have to be upfront honest with them, that we don’t make a lot of money. We handle a lot of money, but you don’t make a lot of money. We’re in it for the enjoyment of actually producing food — people need food, there’s always going to be demand there. There are long hours and hard work, but I think just being your own boss and working with family members is great. You can’t paint a rosy picture because of the times we’re in now, but we have had some fantastic years. My enjoyment is producing a good safe sound food for people all over the world. As Minnesota Pork Board president, I see the rewarding value of getting our product out there in front of people. I think the next generation sees that as well, that there will continue to be a big demand for U.S. pork.
NHF: Why is it important to be involved in pork organizations?
Estrem: This is my sixth year of being on the Minnesota Pork Board itself, and the great honor of serving as president for my second year. Pork Board is funded by Checkoff dollars that are spent for research and development, promotion and education. Those are things that I am very involved with and have been for the last 20 years. We really need to keep educating people on how we raise our pigs. My goal is not to blast it down their throats that “this is the only way we do it, the right way to do it”. My idea is to let them ask the questions and answer it in a civil way. Not that they want to hear everything, they just don’t want it shoved down their throat.
Promotion and image are big things for the Minnesota Pork Board members, we get out there and promote our product, again how safe and easy it is to cook. A lot of people at the Minnesota State Fair this year, even though the suggested cooking temp has been 145 degrees internal versus 165 for three to four years now, I think this year at the state fair only one in 100 knew how to cook pork. We really have to get out there and promote our product, and our board members are really passionate about that.
Research and development is another thing that we’re involved with, and we’re working with the University of Minnesota, as well as South Dakota State University and Iowa State University on how we can do more research. When I came on as president, my theory was that if you raise 10 pigs or 10,000 pigs, I don’t care. As long as you’re on the same page of how we raise pigs and you are Pork Quality Assurance certified, I will represent all of you. We still have to have research for the small farmers as well as the intermediate farmers. Even though the larger operators may have their own research, they do look to the research that we are funding and what the universities are doing, so it does help us all. And for the smaller operators who don’t have their own research and have nowhere else to go, otherwise problems would prevail if the small farms can’t do the research and all of a sudden we’re going to have problems out there that we don’t even know about and that’s going to affect the entire hog industry in the long run. Let’s say a virus breaks out and they don’t do anything about it; pretty soon the neighbors and everybody else has it too.
NHF: How has promotion changed over the years?
Estrem: Twenty years ago when I started promoting, I would go into schools and talk to young kids about farming in general. As the years went by, I updated it to this is how we raise our products. My goal on educating and promoting was to just tell the kids how we do it. It was surprising the positive attitudes they came away with, “well we didn’t know that.” Everyone loves bacon, so you use bacon as the highlight to explain things. These kids go home and talk about what they learned in school, and all of a sudden I’m getting calls back from parents with questions and not in a negative way. It made me feel good that, hey, people really care about how we raise our pork and how we raise our crops. If you tell them the truth straight out, that’s what they want to hear. They might not always agree with you, but you don’t argue with them. Arguing gets you nowhere.
I think it’s cool because when we have our question and answer sessions, I’ll have vegetarians come up to me they’ll want to start an argument. They’ll come right up to me, and say “I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat.” I tell them, that I want to know what they eat. “Well, we eat vegetables, and we eat this and eat that.” And I tell them that I think that’s fantastic, because I raise all that. I grow them on our farms. It’s interesting because they’re not expecting that reaction. I don’t care what people eat, because all of it came from a farm of some kind.
Years ago it was what do pigs eat, how big do they get? Now it’s why do you raise them in your buildings? Why are they in climate control? Why do you have them in pens? You can tell even the younger generation is being told how farmers raise their livestock. It’s something that has to be talked about.
When people ask why we have our pigs inside, I tell them that our buildings are climate-controlled so in the winter our buildings are 68 degrees, and in the summer they’re 72-75 degrees. We can cool them down and warm them up. Our concern is in our area we have a lot of coyote and fox, and they like bacon. That’s a concern. If we’ve got pigs running around outside, the coyotes will come in at night. Also bald eagles, a beautiful bird, but they will prey on any animals. They’ll swoop down and take a pig. We need to protect our animals from Mother Nature. If you can tell them stories like that, you can get across some understanding. You can use the same reasoning for using stalls for farrowing versus open pens, it’s all for the protection of the piglets, as well as for the workers in the hog barns. Sows can get defensive with their piglets. You’re not going to convince 100% of the people, you just need to keep educating. Once they hear that story, they’re like, “hey, that makes sense.”
NHF: Other than overcoming the public’s perception and fears of how pork is being raised, what are the biggest challenges ahead for pork producers?
Estrem: No. 1 is our prices. On the financial side when you have $41 December hogs this year, and they climb up to $65 in May, there’s still not much of a break even point there. On the grain side, it’s helping things as we’re buying cheaper inputs when you’re feeding $2.76 corn, so that’s helped the bottom line.
We’re seeing a little bit of expansion going on in the state, more remodeling and people just holding their status quo. With the three new packing plants coming on board in 2017 in the Midwest, I guess those three are already full to capacity as far as our statistics go. We’re going to be putting more pork on the market, so we’re going to have to keep promoting and educating our public that pork is a safe, quality product that is high in protein. We also face the challenges with the exports; we need to get our markets back up.
I did a little look back in history in retail. Bacon over a one-year period has only dropped 68 cents a pound for the retailer, spare ribs are the same price, hams are actually a little bit higher than a year ago. Your ribs and loins are staying the same price, so even though our on-farm price has dropped, it really hasn’t dropped for our retailers and restaurant operators. If they would drop their prices, we could maybe clean out our cold storage and hopefully make more of a demand. That’s the challenges we face on the financial side.
Health wise, that’s going to be ongoing no matter what. We all face the challenges of health in our pigs no matter what we do, no matter what we try. It seems like there’s always something going on. Yes, we do have things under control, but yet there are still the challenges of the unknown that we face. It’s the what-ifs that we don’t know, but we know it’s going to happen. We’re always facing that.
Challenges with the consumers are that when they hear something, they’re going to believe it, and until they talk to a real farmer, it’s going to be hard to change that.
NHF: Do you see any challenges that Minnesota hog producers face that may not be at play in other states?
Estrem: Close to 50% of our pigs are shipped out to other states, so we share a lot of the same concerns as in other states. We raise 18 million pigs in Minnesota off of 3,400 different hog operations, so we work closely with Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, so I don’t think we have any different issues than anybody else in the Upper Midwest. Everybody’s got PRRS, everybody’s got PED, and our packing facilities are pretty much located where our transportation can get our hogs there in a moderate timeframe.
We do have stricter ordinances as far as building facilities, so that is a challenge.
My concern is what are we going to do with all this new pork on the market with our cold storage already full. Boy, if we can’t get our exports moving, I don’t think we’re going to see a rise in prices for quite a while. A lot of this hinges on the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and I hear 50-50 if it will get passed. As soon as we think something’s going to get done, then it changes and we’re in the backseat again.
NHF: What is your Pork Month message to fellow producers and to consumers?
Estrem: For producers, try to keep a positive attitude. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel. People are going to keep eating pork. Every time we are faced with challenges on the financial side, it brings us stronger into the industry to do a better job of raising our pigs to get the best quality hog out of the least amount of dollars to produce that pig. We on the Minnesota Pork Board are doing the best that we can to be sure that we are using your checkoff dollars to the best of our ability, so have faith in us to keep our industry in a positive manner.
As for consumers, we just want to let them know that pork is a very safe product to eat, high in protein. The way it is raised is very healthy, and it’s the way most people want us to raise our pigs, but it’s also the way we want to raise our pigs.