ALGONA - As president of the National Pork Board, Conley Nelson knows there is a lot of work to be done in telling the story of agriculture, and in making sure that U.S. pork has plenty of takers around the world.
Nelson, who is in his second three-year term on the NPB, said the group met in San Antonio, Texas, early this year to discuss the status of the U.S. pork industry and to be updated on the ways that Pork Checkoff dollars are being used to promote pork to the U.S. Hispanic population.
They chose San Antonio, in part, because 61 percent of the population there is Hispanic, and because 37 percent of the overall population of Texas is Hispanic.
-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
Conley Nelson, president of the National Pork Board and Kossuth County Pork producer, traveled to Texas in January, meeting with other board NPB members to discuss the promotion of the U.S. pork industry. He said the Hispanic population is becoming a large consumer of U.S. pork. Demand for pork in Asia is also rising.
"The Hispanic people are great users of pork," he said, pointing toward the continued demand for pork among Latinos. "It's part of their culture. The Hispanic population is also growing."
Another reason they chose Texas is because it has the largest population of feral pigs, which concerns the NPB. Nelson said feral pigs are a concern because of the potential spread of disease.
"We wanted to go there to understand feral pigs and the impact they have on the pork industry," he said. "Feral pigs can expose our commercial-raised pork to diseases the industry has eliminated, making today's pork better quality and safe for consumers to use."
Nelson said they heard from a large Texas retailer of domestic pork who told the NPB that pork is one of the products that is very important to his retail chain because much of his customer base is Hispanic. He said pork was a good protein for the chain to sell because the Hispanics eat so much of it.
Nelson said anything they can do to promote the pork industry to Hispanics, domestically or internationally will naturally help pork producers in Iowa.
"Pork is the meat of choice in the world, and it's the most eaten protein in the world - not in the U.S., but around the world," Nelson said. "One in three or four pigs is exported. Japan and Mexico are our top customers, with other Asian countries besides China, South Vietnam and South Korea becoming great markets as well."
Nelson said China's pork industry is about six times larger than the U.S. pork industry, but that their pigs are raised primarily in "backyard herds." He said that as large as China is, pork producers there have a difficult time getting their pork into their large urban areas.
"The U.S. has low production costs, great quality and a good supply of pork," Nelson said, adding that more countries are looking toward the U.S. as a supplier of quality pork products.
He went on to say that pork is a cultural necessity in the Asian countries, and that those countries are growing their middle class population.
"The first thing those people want to do is to get more pork," he said, adding that in those countries, they prepare and eat nearly every part of the pig, including snouts and ears, which American people don't necessarily want because they have the "luxury" of being able to afford to buy the prime pork cuts.
"It's a good fit with our domestic market," he said.
Mexico and Asia are large enough consumers of pork that the Iowa Pork Producers Association sends trade missions to those areas regularly. Nelson said the U.S. should set another record on pork exports to anywhere in the world. December numbers on exports are not in yet.
Domestically, he said pork is becoming more popular among urban chefs because of its versatility. Nelson said television cooking shows are beginning to feature more pork dishes.
But even as the popularity of pork increases, Nelson said pork producers continue to be diligent in finding ways to raise quality pork at the lowest possible price.
"Today we raise 30 million more pigs than we did 50 years ago, on 39 percent less sows," he said. "We've reduced our carbon footprint by 35 percent, reduced our water footprint by 41 percent, and we're utilizing 78 percent less land. It's a great sustainable story that the pork industry can be proud of. We've got a great continuous improvement attitude."
Nelson said Iowa raises 30 percent of the nation's pigs, making it a dominant pork production state. But even with that distinction, Nelson said there is a lot of speculation out there.
He said people worldwide need to understand the story of pork production in the U.S., and know that pork producers raise a quality product that is safe to consume.
He said that kind of speculation was a lot of the reason that the fairly new U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance was formed. The NPB is one of its largest contributors.
"Modern agriculture is being attacked today, and we've lost touch with consumers," he said. "Through this alliance we can create a dialogue about modern ag practices because our story is not being told out there."
Nelson said this dialogue session brings together opponents of modern ag practices, people of the farm, medical professionals, the media and others, who all sit and discuss modern ag practices - including meat production, the use of antibiotics in the meat industry, GMOs and the promotion of agriculture in general.
"You can't get a point across by arguing about it," Nelson said. " ... but if you can sit down together and discuss it with logic, science and common sense, and hearing someone else's perspective, you can be educated."
Nelson said there are too many people - even in rural America - who think their food comes from the grocery store.
"We're two to four generations away from someone in the family that farmed, so people don't understand the concept of farming today," he said. "In general, agricultural people are modest - telling their story isn't natural for them. As we continue on, we'll figure out how to tell the story of agriculture in a better way."
Nelson said he remains optimistic about the future of the pork industry.
"There will be lots of challenges, but pork producers are committed - they've chosen it to be their career, their livelihood, their focus," he said. "Their commitment to do what they do is amazing. We're losing money right now in the pork industry, but you don't see people getting out of it. They're digging in - they're committed, focused and passionate."
For more information on the pork industry in general visit: www.pork.org.