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Pork industry clouds have some silver linings

Prop 12 hard to swallow, but trade and WOTUS overturn are victories.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

June 23, 2023

4 Min Read
landscape view of hog operation
NOTABLE RESILIENCY: American pig farmers are currently facing challenges, some not seen for quite some time. There are bright spots for producers to hold onto, however, such as export markets. Courtesy of National Pork Board

A lot of dark clouds hover over the U.S. pork industry, but there are some silver linings.

“It’s been a struggle in 2023,” says Bryan Humphreys, National Pork Producers Council CEO. “In fact, if you just look at the hog market, it hasn’t been horrific. It hasn’t been record-setting — it just hasn’t been horrific. But our challenge is high input prices of corn and beans.” Some market analysts put current hog industry economics at poor levels not seen for 25 years.

Speaking during the recent World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, Humphreys admits that all sectors of agriculture face higher input costs.

Another black cloud hanging over the pork industry came with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California’s Prop 12 can go into effect, prohibiting the sale of pork in the Golden State unless the hogs are raised in specified “humane” practices, regardless of where those hogs are raised.

Some industry experts say 5% to 6% of U.S. pig farmers raise hogs in California-compliant facilities.

“We do have American pork producers who have built Prop 12-compliant barns who are going to have the ability to supply that product, and part of our job at NPPC is to make sure there’s a smooth transition for those folks who have invested the time and energy to build those compliant barns. They should have access to that market,” he says.

Sadly though, when the market door closes for some U.S. pork producers into the California market, it opens for foreign competitors.

“I’ve been told by some of our competitors, ‘We can comply, we’re just waiting for the auditors.’ And it’s a real shame that in the United States of America, there’s the opportunity or the possibility that you’re going to have foreign markets and foreign producers have better market access into a state in the United States,” says Maria Zieba, NPPC vice president of international affairs, “I think if California voters knew the impacts that it’s going to have not only on the availability of product within California, but also the sustainability of having to move product internationally to California, I think they would have voted a little differently.”

Though Prop 12 is worded as an animal welfare measure, Humphreys says it’s never been about the pigs — nor is it about the California consumer. “This was about an extremist group pushing their agenda,” he says. “It has been about their agenda of putting a hurt on animal agriculture. We owe it to the American consumer to continue to push back on that; we owe it to the American pork producer to push back.”

Silver linings

On the bright side, Humphreys says international trade is up. “Our exports are up year over year, and the more we can expose our international customers to the quality of U.S. pork product, the better off that we are,” he says. “When you have an international customer that has access to the safe and affordable U.S. pork product, they want it again, and that’s a tremendous opportunity for us.”

The NPPC CEO also points to pork opportunities in the meat case. “When retail prices start to come down for pork, we do capture-share,” he says, “You can argue it’s traded back and forth between other proteins, but I believe that when folks get an opportunity and try pork and have a good eating experience, they’ll continue to come back — and so there’s some opportunities.”

While Prop 12 hasn’t turned out the way pork producers want, Michael Formica says a victory came when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of Waters of the United States — or WOTUS as it’s commonly referred to.

“You think about all the petitions from animal rights groups and environmental activist groups, you got the TMDL [total maximum daily loads] that they keep pushing,” says the NPPC chief legal strategist. “All of those meet the dynamic in which they will be addressed in lawsuits against controls on your application of manure, people threatening to prevent you from applying manure, nutrients to the ground to grow the crop.”

Pork producers, of course, raise pigs, but Formica acknowledges the sale of manure provides an added revenue stream, providing nutrients. “These activists are trying to chip away at [producers’ rights] and the agencies are trying to grab some more power, and we were able to grab a lot of the power back” with the overturn of WOTUS rules, Formica says.

“We don’t understand that much government overreach; manure is an asset,” says Scott Hays, NPPC president and a fifth-generation hog farmer from Monroe City, Mo. “We use it properly, because that’s what makes the most sense for our farm. It was just unnecessary and burdensome regulation and government intervention that we just didn’t need. … we agree with them [the Supreme Court] that the waters of the state should be navigable waters, not ditches and puddles.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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