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National Pork Board CEO Bill Even answers questions prior to the North Dakota Pork Council annual meeting and convention Friday, August 10, 2018 in Devils Lake. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Pork producers eye future

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — American pork producers face both opportunities and challenges. Officials with the National Pork Board say their organization is tackling both.

The opportunities include growing potential demand for pork both domestically and internationally. The challenges include ongoing disruptions in U.S. pork exports.

"When there are trade issues, it really hits home quickly and we've seen that with impact on hog prices," said Bill Even, CEO of the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board.

Even, a former South Dakota secretary of agriculture, was among roughly 100 people who attended the annual convention of the North Dakota Pork Council Aug. 10 near Devils Lake, N.D. In the past, the annual meeting was held during the winter; the switch to summer makes it easier for exhibitors who had faced conflicts with winter annual meetings of pork groups in other states.

Under the pork checkoff-program, U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought to the country.

The National Pork Board is responsible and checkoff-funded research, promotion and consumer information projects and also for communicating with pork producers and the public. The North Dakota Pork Council is part of the national group.

Even pointed to several developments in which his organization is involved:

• Securing a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to match $1 million in producer checkoff money to help pork producers better understand taking care of their animals.

• Relaunching the 10-year-old We Care program, in which pork producers "hold ourselves accountable for continuous improvement" in animal care. "In the consumer's mind, they want to feel good about how pork is produced and about feeding to their families," an effort that We Care enhances,

• Pork 2040, a long-term effort to sell more pork to emerging markets worldwide.

• A new, temporary campaign in which more than 5,000 Subway restaurants on the East Coast have put three new pork sandwiches on their menu.

• Stepping up its promotional and marketing efforts on social media and other digital platforms.

The long-term domestic outlook for pork sales is encouraging, in part because pork is popular with America's rising Hispanic population, Even said.

Export opportunities for pork, already the world's most widely consumed animal protein, are promising, too, he said.

Exports now account for 27 percent of U.S. pork sales, with China buying about $1 billion of U.S. pork in 2017 and Mexico importing about 40 percent of all U.S. hams. Given that, U.S. pork producers are concerned about current trade disruptions, he said.

North Dakota and pork

North Dakota's hog industry is modest, especially in comparison to Minnesota and South Dakota. As of Dec. 15, according to information on the pork checkoff website:

• Minnesota had a hog and pig inventory of 8.5 million, ranking third nationally.

• South Dakota's hog and pig inventory totaled 1.56 million, 11th nationally.

• North Dakota's hog and pig inventory totaled 147,000, ranking 25th nationally.

But North Dakota's pork industry has strong potential for growth, said Todd Erickson, general manager of North Dakota Sow Co-op, which operates pork operations in Larimore, N.D., and Lakota, N.D.

North Dakota is a big and growing producer of both soybeans and corn, which are the cornerstones of hogs' diets, so the state has the potential to raise many more hogs than it does now, he said.

"I think it's a matter of educating the public. We're considered a cow-calf state. We could be a sow state. We've got location, location, location. We could develop the swine industry," he said.

Erickson describes himself as "a cattle boy" growing up near Minot, N.D. But while attending North Dakota State University, "I ended up in the (NDSU) pig barn on work-study and and just loved it. I decided, 'I'm going to do pigs,'" he said.

Erickson was elected this year as one 15 national directors of the National Pork Board.

It can be difficult for hog producers from states with relatively few hogs to get elected to the board, "so I'm super-happy. It's an honor to be elected by your peers. And I'm having a hoot," he said.

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