REPRESENTATIVES of several of the nation's major food retailers toured a hog farm and restaurant, both owned by Craig and Carol Christensen, near Ogden, Iowa, during a June 25-26 public relations and communications summit hosted by the National Pork Board (NPB), with the support of the Iowa Soybean Assn. (ISA).
Leaders of Sonic, Domino's Pizza, SUPERVALU, Target and CKE Restaurants engaged in a discussion of a wide range of topics, including animal care, genetic modification and environmental sustainability.
"In the food industry, we continually hear about issues related to farming practices, but we don't always get the opportunity to hear directly from farmers themselves. Doing so gives you a better understanding of the science behind what they do, as well as the practical reasons," said Luke Friedrich, manager of public affairs and external communications for SUPERVALU.
"All of this adds perspective," Friedrich said, "and that helps us better serve our customers."
Upon arrival in Iowa, the delegation received a short welcome and overview of modern pig farming at the NPB office in Clive, Iowa. Then, they traveled to Ogden, where the Christensens conducted a tour of their multi-generation, farrow-to-wean enterprise.
The tour of Highway Farms provided guests with the opportunity to view sows that are cared for in individual gestation stalls as well as open pen housing. They also participated in a walk around the farm to view the finishing and farrowing barns and feed mill.
Upon completion of the farm tour, the leaders had dinner at Christensen's Lucky Pig Pub & Grill. The restaurant, located in downtown Ogden and purchased by the Christensens in 2011, features a pork-centered menu complemented with beef, chicken and fish entrees.
Beyond great food, Craig Christensen envisioned the restaurant as a great platform to talk about the pride farmers take in growing food and in their communities.
"We purchased it three years ago because it was dying," he said, motioning to the fully restored dining rooms bustling with activity. "We believed the town needed a restaurant, so we went to work refurbishing it without a blueprint but with the help of a lot of volunteers."
Christensen noted that he and his wife have two children: an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old. "When I was a kid, we had a vibrant restaurant and grocery store, and I could do anything because I knew everyone," he said. "You lose that sense of community when you lose your restaurants and grocers. I didn't want that to happen in Ogden."
Chris Brandon, director of external communications and events for Domino's, said Christensen's story resonates, along with his commitment to growing safe food.
"Those of us in the food industry will never be the experts on how food is grown. That's why time spent visiting with farmers and seeing what they do and where they live is so beneficial," Brandon said.
"Information empowers us to transition from being responsive and reactive to being proactive about how proud we are to be a partner with Iowa's pig farmers," he added. "It's also very helpful to hear from the other brands that have gathered here. It's a reminder that we're all in this together as we navigate the issues farmers and our customers care about."
Following the farm tour and dinner, the group met with ISA representatives to learn more about the association, soybean production and the Iowa Food & Family Project.
For some, the visit to Iowa was their first, but it may not be their last given the important and evolving issues facing the nation's farm and food industries.
"The more we understand and work together, the better we are all served," said Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations for Sonic.
Global pork exports
Using U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the U.S. Meat Export Federation recently reported that exports last year accounted for 28% of total U.S. pork production, up from 26% in May 2013.
Pork industry leaders are saying that it was these exports that helped support hog markets when many producers were struggling with the effects of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and are emphasizing that additional trade opportunities need to be explored because they are crucial to the industry's viability.
At the 2014 World Pork Expo, immediate past president of the National Pork Producers Council Randy Spronk shared how both producers and consumers benefit from U.S. pork exports worldwide.
"As a country, we have the ability to produce an abundance of food," Spronk said. "As a farmer, I feel I have a moral calling to share what I produce with the rest of the world."
USDA data released in May indicated that the export value of a pig was $69.57 per head, an increase of 26% from the previous year. Part of this growth was attributed to the continued expansion of export markets, where a larger percentage of the hog carcass is used.
Population growth in the U.S. is presently about 3% per year; however, the percentages are much higher in underdeveloped countries around the world, resulting in a growing demand for protein products.
This population growth is one of the reasons producers like Spronk are working to gain support for more trade agreements that will allow the U.S. to export to these countries.
Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations for the National Pork Producers Council, said he believes it is important that producers understand all of the benefits related to pork exports.
"Without growing export market opportunities, the U.S. pork industry would run the risk of being stagnant," Hockman explained. "If our pork producers had to be dependent on the domestic marketplace, there would be few opportunities for industry growth."
Besides the slower population growth in the U.S., the competition between domestic protein sources continues to grow as other commodity producers seek ways to add value to their products.
As the pork industry continues to seek new market opportunities worldwide, some U.S. producers are concerned that domestic protein producers in those countries will try to stop or sidetrack new trade agreements with the U.S.
Additionally, producers have expressed concerns to Spronk and other industry leaders that the export market could be unfairly interrupted if protein producers in underdeveloped countries seek trade restrictions based on a perceived feed ingredient issue, animal health issue or animal welfare issue.
"One thing that producers must do is to insist that the rules for any restriction are clearly defined," Spronk said.
He and Hockman agreed that it is important to keep producers informed about the benefits to new pork export markets in countries with high protein demand.
"Whenever we discuss exports with hog producers, we remind them that the entire industry benefits from each new market as more of the carcasses are sold into value-added markets," Hockman said.