Have you ever thought about burning down half the buildings on your farm in one day? It might sound crazy, but that is exactly what we did on our farm in South Dakota in the summer of 1997.

Like any farm in business for over 100 years, our farmstead had amassed quite an array of buildings, storage sheds and tree groves filled with decades of stuff – or as my father Neal liked to describe it, “useful junk.” In the spring of 1997, my younger brother Tim joined our operation by starting a farm equipment repair business. We needed to build a modern heated shop, but all those old buildings and part of the tree grove sat directly in our way.

Between calving, planting, haying, and spraying, we spent many weeks cleaning out the outdated structures. After a lot of trips to the scrapyard, we were ready, and when my parents left for a 10-day vacation over the Fourth of July, we dug a large hole, bulldozed half the farm into it and lit it on fire.

Dad was furious when he returned home and saw what had happened, but we already had the footings poured and life went on. We built the steel building, complete with in-floor heating, over the balance of the summer and fall.

We threw a New Year’s Eve grand opening party. As friends and neighbors enjoyed pork loin BBQ and ice-cold beer, Dad looked around the new shop, leaned back in his chair and said, “Building this new shop is the best thing I ever did,” and we all laughed.

That summer not only marked a major transformation for our farm, but it set the stage for a fundamental change in our operation. While our farm looked and functioned differently from that point forward, our legacy as a family business continued. We worked together to save what needed to be saved and built what needed to be built to set our farm up for future success.

Unprecedented Change

All this reflects the fact that change is inevitable, but adaptation and survival are optional. Consider how the entire food system from farm to fork is undergoing unprecedented change now.

Pig farmers are demanding that the Pork Checkoff be more deeply engaged in overarching industry strategy, coupled with delivering value to their individual business models. They demand an organization that can move at the speed of business while adding value and building consumer trust. These concepts are driving key changes at the Pork Board under the umbrella of the Pork Checkoff 4.0.

One fundamental change involves the board’s decision to move away from five-year planning cycles, programs and a limited number of committees into a business model built around annual planning, projects and task forces focused on short- and long-term priorities.

Projects have a beginning and an end and are driven to outcomes-focused on time, scope and budget. This new direction stems from the recommendations of the Pork Board’s Strategic Plan Task Force, which received input from more than 1,000 pig farmers and industry stakeholders this past spring.

A major area of concern? The Pork Board’s current structure and processes are impeding its ability to act quickly on key issues. It is easy to understand this when you consider how quickly things change in our industry, including:

  • International trade challenges in major markets, such as China.
  • Foreign animal disease outbreaks, such as African swine fever (ASF).
  • The rise in alternative, non-meat proteins, fueled in part by investment money pouring into these research and development projects.
  • Increased focus on sustainability by food companies.

Many key issues transforming the pork industry today were not on anyone’s radar in 2014 when Pork Checkoff leaders developed the last five-year strategic plan. Back then, few people were talking about ASF, alternative proteins, international marketing disruptions due to trade wars or mandated sustainability targets driven by consumer brands.

With today’s fast-paced change, the Strategic Plan Task Force recommended changing the committee structure to something that is more agile while retaining the Pork Board’s commitment to producer leadership and to cooperation with universities and pork industry partners. The task force structure will allow challenges to be addressed more quickly and effectively.

Take communications, for example. We have worked hard to share pork messages with consumers who are seeking information. Yet, we can do more. We need to close the gaps in the last mile that connects pig farmers to marketing channel partners and to consumers.

We are hearing loud and clear from packers, restaurants, grocery retailers and others that they want more from us. They are looking for more consistent farm-to-fork engagement.

One of the best ways to start moving in this direction is to listen – there is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. The Pork Board also has the power to convene, so it can play a unique role in bringing farmers and other food industry business professionals together to find mutually beneficial solutions based on the We CareSM principles.

Focusing on Purpose, Process, and Payoff

We are not going to convene a meeting or conference call for the sake of creating a to-do item on a checklist, however. Activity and talk do not equal action and outcomes. We must ensure a clear purpose, process, and payoff every time we convene a group.

I think of success stories such as the upcoming Pig Welfare Symposium. When this group meets in November, people will not just share knowledge; they also will take new knowledge home to implement new solutions.

To me, this embodies the spirit of Pork Checkoff 4.0 and pig farmers’ commitment to continuous improvement. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move the Pork Checkoff from good to great. The key is to stay close to the producers we serve and to keep their needs top of mind as we look for better options for engagement and action.

Going forward, this is not going to be your grandparents’ Pork Checkoff. America’s pig farmers have a history of adapting to changing times to support their needs.

As we embrace new systems and find better ways to operate efficiently, I predict the changes ahead will be a lot like that new shop we built on my family’s farm more than 20 years ago. Someday soon, we will sit back and say, “That is one of the best things we ever did.”

“We worked together to save what needed to be saved and built what needed to be built to set our farm up for future success,” says Bill Even.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move the Pork Checkoff from good to great.”

Bill Even

Bill Even

CEO, National Pork Board