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'18 Pork Masters: Dotson guides industry through many changes

May 29, 2018

15 Min Read
'18 Pork Masters: Dotson guides industry through many changes
Kevin Schulz, National Hog Farmer

U.S. farmers have seen some tenuous and strenuous times over the last few decades, from economic ups and downs to tightening environmental regulations to being forced to play under a new set of rules for raising livestock. Earl Dotson has been right there with producers every step of the way, sometimes even leading the way.

A teacher by trade, Dotson brought that educator mindset to the National Pork Producers Council. He was brought on in the new capacity of director of education, with the missive to start an education program for producers. His teaching ability and the subject matter came along at just the right times. For that, Dotson is being honored as one of this year’s Masters of the Pork Industry.

“We were doing education seminars every few months, and I was proud of them all, but the one I was most proud of was we started Pork Academy at World Pork Expo,” Dotson says. “The last one I oversaw, we planned for about 400 people, and we had 650-plus show up. We had enough pork chops for 480; 150 got ham.” The hotel set up tables in hallways to accommodate the overflow crowd. “What that told me was that the education programs that we were dwelling on at NPPC were the right stuff,” he adds.

In 1997, a year after that standing-room-only Pork Academy crowd, Al Tank took over as NPPC chief executive officer, and Dotson was named vice president of education, environment and research. “I inherited all the environmental problems people had,” he says. Dotson says he built up a million airline miles with TWA as he traversed the country, giving hundreds of talks on the environment and spending a lot of time in the nation’s capital.

At the 1997 World Pork Expo, Tank and Dotson approached the National Pork Board and requested $2 million to start the On-Farm Assessment and Environmental Review, a program that went on farms to do environmental assessments.” Only $1 million was approved for OFAER, but Dotson didn’t see that as a setback.

“I was really proud of OFAER; it was very successful,” he says. “We combined the top engineers and environmental experts all that summer, and rolled out the program in that fall with pilot programs.”

That winter the Environmental Protection Agency came through with a $5 million grant, “and between ’97 and 2005, we were on close to 6,000 farms for environmental assessments.”

This was a time that, as Dotson puts it, “the industry was being ‘regulated up.’ Most all the [environmental] regulations that we have today came about in that time frame. That’s really scary when you think that so much could happen that fast.”

He was proud to be a part of the NPPC then, as the organization was getting in front of this movement. “The thing that I’m really proud of with OFAER is that it helped pork producers realize that there were changes that needed to be made, and they helped get those changes made.”

Proactive, forward-thinking producers allowed many assessments to take place between 1997 and 2005. “They were all voluntary,” Dotson says. “That showed that the industry was willing to step up. … Pork was doing the right stuff, we really were, and that’s why we put together the programs that we did, to make the right stuff even better.”

 Joint environmental effort

With so much emphasis on the environment, the NPPC in 1999 suggested that the formation of a private company to handle the environmental assessments would be merited, and Dotson was asked to be the CEO. OFAER and other environmental programs were combined to form Environmental Management Solutions, which would perform environmental assessments for poultry, dairy and beef operations, in addition to hog farms.

The $5 million EPA grant was still place-to-place to allow EMS to keep performing the on-farm assessments. This timing coincided with the Natural Resources Conservation Service developing comprehensive nutrient management plans, “so we brought together a group of retired NRCS employees and started doing the nutrient management plans all over the country for a fee,” Dotson says.

The umbrella of EMS continued to grow, as United Egg Producers requested that EMS start performing animal welfare assessments of producers’ farms.

“An interesting thing happened in 2004,” Dotson recalls. “United Egg Producers came to us and said, ‘We’re putting together an animal welfare audit. You’re doing assessments on our environmental side; can EMS do welfare work for us, too?’ We said we could.”

After working with the UEP board toward a resolution and nearing approval that would allow EMS to perform the welfare audits, a board member asked how an environmental group could do animal welfare audits. “That’s a fair question when you think about it,” Dotson says.

The answer to that question and the solution was to change the name of EMS to Validus. Validus began doing animal welfare work in earnest in 2005 with UEP welfare audits, and then developed dairy and pork animal welfare audits.

“We put together key experts in every industry, brought them together to draw up standards, and then we developed an audit tool off the standards. We did a lot of egg work and dairy work, not a lot of pork work,” Dotson says.

Validus was still owned by the NPPC, and it was decided that the firm no longer needed to be a public company. With the emphasis on other livestock species in addition to pork, it made sense for the NPPC to sell. Dotson and other investors bought Validus from the pork producers.

Just as the environmental battle had raged a decade or so earlier, the animal welfare activists were getting organized around 2007, “so Validus was in the right place at the right time,” Dotson says.

“We did a few pork audits. Then in 2011, we went to Hormel to develop the standards for their pork audit, and when Hormel did that, then we picked up all the major processors — Tyson, Hatfield, JBS. Basically, all the majors except Smithfield, and they owned most of their sow operations so they could control their supply.”

Aligned with CSIA

The National Pork Board developed the Common Swine Industry Audit for packers, and it has become the industry standard; Validus still does most of these audits.

Validus was also still doing work in the environmental realm, “but as you can imagine, with the regulations taken over in the mid-2000s, a lot of the environmental work dropped off. We still do some CNMP work today,” Dotson says.

Change was coming again for Dotson. He recalls that in 2009, Validus “got a big contract with PepsiCo to do their sustainability program, and we developed that, containing environmental programs for crops and dairy animal welfare programs. We worked on that over three years, and I wanted to audit their farms.”

In 2012, he was sitting in a meeting with PepsiCo vice presidents, and one of them said, “Earl, Validus will never audit our farms. … You can’t be a consultant and develop our program and then be an auditor and audit our program.’ ”

That struck a chord with Dotson, and after some thought, it was decided that Validus would be divided —Validus would do the auditing work, and Praedium would handle the consulting work. “Staff was divided, books were divided — it was a truly divided company, but the only problem was I was still CEO of both companies, so there was a little conflict,” he says.

Improvement over time

In 2013, Validus was sold to Where Food Comes From Inc. “We were probably their biggest competitor, and they were our biggest competitor. We were private; they were public,” Dotson explains.

Praedium continued as a consulting firm but was sold in 2017 to K-Coe Isom, in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“OFAER was the first boots-on-the-ground expert going to a farm looking at the environment, and I think our swine animal welfare audit was the first animal welfare audit boots-on-the-ground with standards that went to that many hog operations,” Dotson says.

With the development of the CSIA, and that becoming the standard, Dotson says Validus clients were converted over to the CSIA.

Just as producers and their enterprises have improved over time, Dotson has seen the steady growth and improvement of the auditing system. “In 2007, when we became private, we established a private, secure database of all audit results,” he says. “When you put all our information together, you could see where the industry was lacking, and you could see variations between the regions of the U.S. Operations were different, different types of housing. That database really helped in guiding us how you develop standards on how to do audits.”

Pork leads the way

Though the word “audit” tends to strike fear into anyone having to undergo one, Dotson credits pork producers and the pork industry with forward-thinking.

“In 2006 when Validus rolled out a pork audit, it wasn’t real popular, but what drove me was remembering how fast the environmental regulations came. Can you just imagine if we’d have the same regulations with animal welfare?” he says. “And to be honest, who do you think would drive those regulations? There are a lot more activists on the animal welfare side of things than there were on the environmental side. … That was the reason, selfishly, I thought animal welfare was so important — the last thing you want is the industry to get regulated up like environmental was. If you could regulate yourselves voluntarily, and those voluntary programs go a lot further than government programs do, and yet they’re still voluntary.”

Regardless of who is driving animal welfare regulations in the country today — consumers, retailers, packers or producers — livestock operations are under a microscope. “Now some packers are requiring farm welfare audits, but that’s evolved over time. That’s why it was important when Hormel got on board, because then the writing was on the wall, and once they did, they all did,” Dotson says.

He says a major movement in the world of animal welfare audits was when previously overlooked parts of the chain became involved, such as the buying stations and sales barns.

“Now buying stations are audited every three years,” he says. “They have come so far. They’ve done an awful lot. … These had been kind of sitting off to the side of the chain, so this part of the industry developed their own audit. Consumers should feel good because every step is under an animal welfare audit. A very high percent are audited; the gaps are very small.”

Surviving tough times

There’s a saying that raising pigs is easy, but raising healthy pigs makes it a lot easier. It also helps if producers can make a living by raising pigs, and with all that producers were facing during the late 1990s — “they were growing, they were expanding, and they were facing a lot of environmental issues, and we needed the ag lenders to understand,” Dotson says.

To meet that need, the NPPC wanted to organize a lenders group, but since the organization was receiving checkoff dollars, it needed approval from the Agricultural Marketing Service. “We were turned down because we couldn’t use checkoff dollars to educate ‘lenders,’ ” Dotson says.

Dotson, National Pork Board CEO Mike Simpson and the NPPC’s Tank sat down with Barry Carpenter, head of AMS at the time. “We stressed again why we needed this, why we needed the lenders to understand what producers were going through,” Dotson says, “and Barry, in all his wisdom, says, ‘I think I’ve got an idea that we can approve since you can’t use checkoff dollars to educate lenders. But you can call it a Pork Lending Conference, and we’ll approve it.’ ”

In 1996, three Pork Lending Conferences were held across the U.S. In 1997, there was one, “and well, you know what ’98 was like — unheard-of low prices. The pork industry was just dying,” Dotson says.

Because the NPPC had the forward-thinking to establish the Pork Lending Conferences, the organization had a database of contacts of ag lenders from across the country.

“So every Wednesday night we had a conference call — Al Tank, myself and Neil Dierks — where the lenders could call in to find out what was going on,” Dotson says. “That saved a lot of hog farmers because they got the message, ‘OK, you’ve got to stick with your growers out there.’ It was good because they could hear from someone outside their little circle.”

That was in late ’98, and the calls were weekly. Dotson imagines a lot of producers never knew these were going on, but they benefited from those conference calls. “That had an effect on saving some producers, not all, but I think some would have had their keys are taken away if they wouldn’t have had that — the CEO of the NPPC saying that things were going to get better, and they did. We wouldn’t have had those names without having the lending conference.”

The National Pork Board continues this conference today under a different name.

This wasn’t the first time Dotson was involved in helping save producers’ livelihood.

The El Dorado Springs, Mo., native taught high school agriculture in Cameron, Mo., for 18 years after graduating from the University of Missouri with a major in animal science and a minor in ag education.

In 1987, he made the leap from teaching high school agriculture to leading the adult farm management program, also in the Cameron area. “I got the privilege of taking a lot of people through the glorious ’80s. That’s when everyone was in bad shape; we did some interesting things to survive,” Dotson says.

“We were all coming off hard times in farming; tractors were worn out,” he recalls, “and we got really involved in no-till, and a lot of people said, ‘Oh yeah, no-till so you look after the soil.’ I agree it does take care of the soil, but no-till was a way for them to survive. They could buy a new planter and share it, or buy it a lot cheaper than a new tractor. Wore out tractors were pulling these planters and drills.”

Educator at heart

Dotson did a lot of education and financial work with the area producers. “I knew bankers by first names in three counties,” he says. “Yeah, we did a lot of work together.”

Being raised on a hog, cattle and crops farm in southwestern Missouri, Dotson had a glimpse of hard times, though he didn’t realize it at the time.

“I always wanted to farm, but the question was if Dad should risk his farm so that I could farm, and the answer was absolutely not!”

As a youngster, Dotson remembers getting the full farm experience as “I got to plant corn as a seventh-grader because Dad went to work on a construction job. At the time, I just thought, well, Dad’s going to work. Now I figured out Dad was at the point that ‘I have to get an off-farm job, or we’re not going to make it.’ ”

That farm experience lent itself well to molding the young Dotson in his FFA career. “Since I was doing a lot of the farming, I had a great FFA project,” he says. He was his FFA chapter vice president and was named Star District Farmer. “I loved the hogs, but Dad didn’t. As soon I graduated from college, Dad sold the hogs.”

Looking back on his home farm, Dotson says with a cringed chuckle that “it would not pass today’s [animal welfare] audit, but it would pass some of the activists’ audits.”

Floyd McKinney and David Allison were two of Dotson’s high school ag teachers who spurred interest in education and encouraged him to pursue that career.

“Both were great educators. Their model and the things that I did in FFA are why I got into teaching; they encouraged me to get into teaching,” Dotson says.

When he came to Cameron, the high school ag program boasted two teachers and was known for its strong livestock showing program. He remembers as many as 25 Cameron students showing livestock at the
Missouri State Fair at one time — mostly hogs, but also cattle and sheep.

“I wasn’t trying to make hog farmers out of them,” he recalls. “I looked at the people they met, the places they went; that was a big part of the education. My sons showed, and I look back on their lives and where they’re at now, and it was the people they met showing hogs that helped them and still help them today, and I value that, and valued that as a teacher.”

Hog showmanship has worked its way through the Dotson generations as Dotson and wife Sandra’s sons — James, Steven and Eddie — all showed Chester Whites, Hampshires and Poland Chinas, with success, having two champion boars at the National Barrow Show in Austin, Minn.

Dotson credits hog showing for bridging the gap between himself and his grandchildren — Rachel, Morgan, Austin and Cody.

Not as he planned

Working on environmental and animal welfare audits was not part of Dotson’s grand plan for his future. He planned to become a superintendent of schools. “I even had the school picked out where I wanted to be super, but David Meeker changed those plans.” Meeker approached Dotson about coming to work for the NPPC.

That about-face of career planning has worked well for Dotson, and for the U.S. pork industry. He says his experience in farm management has benefited his work with the NPPC. “The biggest advantage I had when I came to NPPC was the six years I spent as an adult educator,” he says. “I could speak the producers’ language.

“I love teaching — I’ll always be a teacher — but the NPPC gave me the opportunity, to be honest, to do things I never ever would have done if I would have stayed in teaching,” he says. “I always thank David Meeker for hiring me; he was the key.”

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