Youth with a hunger to advance the pork business

Cheryl Day, Former Editor

February 5, 2016

12 Min Read
Youth with a hunger to advance the pork business
<p>The <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="Maschhoffs">Maschhoffs</span> Pork Production <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="NJSA">NJSA</span> 2015 Scholarship winners: (front row, from left) Morgan Cox, <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="Danika">Danika</span> Miller and <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="Lexi">Lexi</span> <span data-scayt-lang="en_US" data-scayt-word="Marek">Marek</span>; (back row) Jackson Johnson and Caleb Grohmann. </p>

Passion connects these young trailblazers to the many generations of pork leaders before them, yet their fearless attitude to boldly face any future challenges the pork industry may encounter and eat it for breakfast sets them apart. In a few minutes with the National Junior Swine Association recipients of The Maschhoffs Pork Production scholarship — Morgan Cox, Danika Miller, Lexi Marek, Jackson Johnson and Caleb Grohmann — one can see an openness to accept change and a drive to advance the U.S. pork business beyond conceivable limits.

Since 2008, The Maschhoffs have funded a scholarship with the NJSA, rewarding bright leaders with a higher education monetary award and also a chance to shadow employees during a four-day internship at the company’s headquarters in Carlyle, Ill. The Maschhoffs’ assistant director of genetics and cultivator of the scholarship program, Randy Bowman, says the program bridges young pork enthusiasts with a love for the show ring to the production side of the industry.

“This generation is not so tied to preconceived ideas from past concepts. I think they have very fresh thoughts and ideas. It is not tied to what my dad thinks, so this is what I am going to say,” Bowman explains. “It just flows. You start a topic, and it takes off. Their thoughts are fresh.”

Although Bowman and the five winners truly have no idea what the future trials of the industry will be, all agree that this group will approach them from a different perspective than their grandparents did. For the most part, their grandparents’ generation would remain quiet and did not say much to the public about the industry. 

Josh Flint, The Maschhoffs communication manager, says, “One thing that was great about these five leaders is they have so much passion that they do not give much thought to the fact that agriculture is only 2% of the population. They do not see that as a roadblock.”

As well, these five leaders have a good handle on how to approach the consumer, Bowman explains. Sometimes we think consumers want to know more than they truly want to know, he says.

“These guys are an open book,” Bowman says.

Real pig farming

Bowman further explains this program is important because many NJSA members only have experienced the show pig side, and most have not been exposed to the nuts and bolts of raising pigs commercially.

“They have the same passion we do. They have a passion for pigs and a passion for people. I think it is a common bond that drew us (The Maschhoffs) to it. The key is to keep them in the industry,” Bowman says. “And, the terrific job that NJSA does developing leaders means that these young scholars are primed to one day assume leadership positions within the pork production industry.”

While the top five selected every year are brilliant leaders among their peers in the NJSA, the time and money invested by The Maschhoffs over the last years has not only expanded the knowledge and perspective of the participants, but also empowers them to share the story. Bowman says Cox has already started thinking about how to connect kids in the show ring with The Maschhoffs, an effort that will sustain a stronger forthcoming generation of leaders to embrace the future of the pork business. Four of the five leaders, including Cox, serve as board members of the NJAS, an organization led by the youth, with a membership of 16,000 with members age 21 and younger. These young leaders already have the established connections necessary for the story to really be heard. Moreover, all five scholarship recipients know first-hand how far removed most of the kids are from the farm, and more specifically pork production beyond the show ring, since a majority of the NJSA members were born shortly before or after many families exited the industry as hog prices collapsed in 1998. 

Another facet of the program is showing that a large commercial pork business does not mean the family aspect is lost. “At first glance, I think they saw Maschhoffs as a large company, but after spending some time with us, they realize it is still a family business at heart. I think that is the cool part about it,” Bowman says. “There is no doubt in my mind these five kids will be in the pig business, and the pig business is going to better because they are.”

Meet the future leaders

Caleb Grohmann grew up in Red Bud, Ill., on his family operated farm, Cedar Ridge Swine Seedstock, with 19,000 sows. The farm serves customers around the world. Through the years, he has been actively involved in all production stages from the sow farm to the finishing barn. 

Grohmann credits his time spent in the barns on his family farm for fostering his passion for swine genetics and his ability to be an effective problem-solver.

“My favorite part about growing up on the farm was the day-by-day diversity. You never know what is going to happen each day. Any animal will always present you a certain challenge each day,” says Grohmann, a sophomore at the University of Missouri, studying animal science with plans to attend graduate school with a focus on swine genetics. “What really helps people, like us, who have the opportunity to be exposed to livestock, is we can become great problem-solvers simply because we do not know what can happen next.”

Grohmann has known for a long time that his dream job is a geneticist on a commercial swine farm. However, The Maschhoffs experience put it all into perspective, describing his passion as “a geneticist with entrepreneurship spirit.”

The international component of his family’s business has shaped a more mature world view than his fellow college students. He realizes how important consumer perception is to the swine business. However, he says the consumer’s priority varies by geographic location. In his opinion, the European Union’s pork industry is ahead of the United States in dealing with consumers. On the flip side, he says in Asia consumer opinion is years behind the U.S. consumer, with a focus on how to afford good protein to feed their families rather than on how the food is produced. It is not on the Asian consumers’ radar yet, he adds.

Looking ahead, he thinks the future is about change and how to adapt to change to better the industry as a whole with little or no repercussion. For instance, Grohmann believes for the industry to tackle antibiotic-free pork, the key is to develop genetics with some resistance, followed by management practices and revamping biosecurity.

Grohmann thinks one wildcard yet to come for the industry is the export market from live animal to meat trade. “Each country is so different with their regulations, and it all can change just like that. They can make up some law that can prohibit us marketing, whether it is live animals or meat, in a split second.”

Jackson Johnson is a native of Poenton, Ind., where he grew up on a prominent Duroc and Hampshire farm that had exported seedstock to 11 countries in the past, but now sells top genetics to young swine exhibitors domestically. Today, his family farm’s focus is show pigs. As a junior at Purdue University, he is studying agriculture business and marketing. 

As a person immersed in the show ring side, Johnson understands the positive impact showing pigs can have on a person’s life. He says one thing that is unique about the swine business is the passion to raise pigs is found throughout. “Most of the time you do not find a career that you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I am going to stay in this career for 30 years because I hate it.’ You wake up and say, ‘I like to do my job.’ If you want to be in the swine industry, you stick with it,” adds Johnson.

For him, the challenges of the future are unknown until people bring it to the table, or it shows up on Facebook. He says his generation has to be open to change and perhaps not quite as stubborn as his grandpa’s generation.

On a small farm with a contract pharmaceutical research facility near Terra Haute, Ind., Danika Miller had a lot of experience at a young age with animal research, working beside her dad — a meat scientist by trade. As a result, Miller has always been naturally drawn to the food side.

“I really have a passion for the product side of the protein industry — the pork industry more specifically,” says Miller, a senior at Purdue University, studying food science with an intention to also attend graduate school. Her appetite for product innovation is fueled by internship opportunities with companies like Tyson, and she sees her future in some shape or form in that sector.

For Miller, the major challenge for the swine business is keeping up with the world and the growth of the industry. “The swine industry has grown so much in the last 40 years, and production has had to skyrocket so quickly that strains have been put on communication, facilities, manufacturing processes and in general across the board,” says Miller.

Something Miller strongly believes her generation will bring to the table is “fresh minds.” Bringing new minds with a more global perspective will expose the industry to a different outlook. Miller and the others in the group are already world travelers, and she openly admits that experience has taught her to look at things much differently than average college students her age.

Miller says, “The future is really bright. I think the pork industry has a unique ability to adapt to flavors. I think consumers will be leaning to pork for that reason.”

When she speaks of the future on the protein product side, Miller foresees more regional or farm-specific branding that could give more information for the consumers.

She adds connecting with the consumer must start with identifying what the person is actually concerned about before responding. Do they want to meet the farmer that raises the pork or do they want to feel more secure about it?

“Honestly, when you sit down with them and have a conversation, half the time they do want all the details you could give them. I think a lot of times when you start those conversations, you start defending yourself before you need to. We should be open.”

In the future, Miller plans to dive deeper into protein chemistry and ingredient technology to address the serious problem of food scarcity. While the agriculture community produces a large quantity of food every year, the problem is distributing it. Miller sees ingredient technology as a way to enhance the nutritional value of a food product and better distribute animal proteins that are desperately needed around the globe.

Still, new food technology often sparks new fears. Miller says people want to be reassured that their food will not hurt them, and they want the message delivered by their grandmas. “If you have not heard of it or seen it in your grandma’s cupboard, then do not put it in a meat product. No one wants to see it on a label. One thing, I think, agriculture companies should promote is empowering their employees to approach the consumer,” concludes Miller.

A future in swine nutrition is the aspiration for Hope, Ind., native Morgan Cox, a senior at Purdue University. Whereas Cox is no stranger to winning big in the show ring, she knows her future belongs to the science of feeding the pig. 

She also sees herself as a scientist not afraid to answer the tough consumer’s questions. For her, it will be exciting to help develop technology while having the consumer’s eye. “I think I will be a scientist that would rather not be in the lab all day. I’d rather be talking to people and sharing what I know. That is what our industry is going to come to.”

The real future hurdle

Looking beyond today, Cox thinks the real future hurdle will be communication. “We are going to have a lot of great people making advancements, but the challenge is going to be communicating those advancements in a way that does not scare people. We are going to be truthful, but we need to better understand the consumer and their concerns to develop a way to approach them.”

The best way to communicate with a consumer is to start by listening to what their concerns are about, understand where they are coming from and decide what led them to ask that question, shares Cox. “It is hard for them to understand what we are going through or how we are producing it until you explain that story,” she adds. The key to forming a genuine connection with the consumer is understanding their personality type and their values.

Lexi Marek is a sixth-generation farmer, raised on her family’s diverse grain and livestock farm in Riverside, Iowa. She describes it as the modern-day “old McDonald’s farm.” For her family, raising pigs is centered on breeding for the show ring, and her family started a boar stud farm over 10 years ago.

As Marek grew up involved in the family’s farming operation, she began telling their story in different ways, including online. Joking that her father was not exactly computer savvy, she says her website updating sparked an enthusiasm for communication and marketing and her chosen career path within the pork industry. As a junior at Iowa State University, Marek has a double major in public service and administration in agriculture and journalism. She intends to seek a master’s in agriculture communication after graduation, and she also wants to continue her family farm.

A big issue Marek thinks the pork community will have to face in the near future is the labor. “The way I think of it is you cannot have people developing genetics, working on issues and advocating without having good people behind any of that.”

A significant take-home lesson that she learned from spending a week with The Maschhoffs is you do not have to have a pig background to perform very well in the pork industry. She says, “Some of the most interesting people we talked to know exactly what they were talking about, and they had no experience in the pork industry, but they had the passion. Finding the people with the passion will be the biggest challenge.”

Marek adds that is the one thing her generation can provide through NJSA. “You instill passion through the show ring, then the commercial side uses that passion to become more successful as well.

“I think the future is going to be fine. I think about the past 30 years, and there is always going to be an issue, and if you have the right people, you are going to face that issue. I have no doubt that my generation is going to be able to do above and beyond what is being done right now,” says Marek.  

About the Author(s)

Cheryl Day

Former Editor, National Hog Farmer

Cheryl Day is a former editor of National Hog Farmer.

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