In this issue, we’re kicking off a series of stories to showcase National Pork Board members and the Pork Checkoff initiatives they are excited about. Please take a few minutes to get to know the producers leading the way to enhance the marketing of U.S. pork and pork products.  – Darcy Maulsby

Keeping Pace in the Fast Lane

“People live, shop and eat differently in today’s fast-paced society,” said Todd Erickson, a National Pork Board member and general manager of North Dakota Sow Cooperative Management, LLC, a 12,500-head farrow-to-wean farm that markets 300,000 pigs annually.  “To keep pace, it’s critical for the Pork Checkoff to continue to adapt and change,” said Erickson, who is a graduate of the Pork Leadership Academy. “While we’ve flat-lined on domestic pork consumption for years, it’s vital to increase domestic demand.”

This has meant reaching out to consumers in new and unique ways, he noted. For example, while pork promotion used to involve national television and radio ads, today the Pork Checkoff works with key influencers on social media sites such as YouTube to reach more targeted audiences.

“It’s great to use social media influencers to improve consumers’ perception of pork,” Erickson said.  In 2018, The Checkoff teamed with YouTube stars on 46 videos to showcase pork. Collectively, the videos garnered 14.5 million views, with 10.5 million of those unique views. Online visitors spent a total of 80.5 million minutes viewing the videos. Adapting to consumers’ changing needs is also vital, as is Pork Checkoff research to determine what those changes are, said Erickson, who grew up on a cattle ranch in North Dakota.  “When people make food choices, many of them are looking for convenience and ethnic flavors,” Erickson said. “That might mean providing pre-seasoned pork for fajitas, for example.” “Like a lot of people, I usually figure out what to eat not too long before mealtime,” said Erickson,

That’s why he’s especially interested in the Pork Checkoff’s Dinner at Home in America research. This identifies areas of growth for pork and serves up a bold new challenge to the pork industry: Innovate or risk losing relevance with today’s consumers. “People used to go to the freezer at home and figure out what to eat for dinner that night,” Erickson said. “Now they’re going to the grocery store and picking up what catches their eye.”

“To keep pace, it’s critical for the Pork Checkoff to continue to adapt and change.”

– Todd Erickson, Northwood, ND

Challenging Anti-Meat Message

When Gary Asay started farming full-time in 1976, most hogs were raised in open lots and pastures. “Back then, no one tested the nutrient content of manure,” said Asay, a National Pork Board member who owns and manages Asay Farms, a wean-to-finish operation near Osco, Illinois. “Farmers spread the manure on top of the ground where it was convenient.”

As technology advanced, farmers embraced better ways of managing those nutrients more effectively. Solutions have included soil and manure testing, strategically applying manure to areas where nutrients are needed most and injecting manure in the soil to control odor and runoff. Still, pig farming continues to come under attack from environmental critics who often are misinformed.

“We need to keep sharing the strides we’ve made to protect the environment with everyone from consumers to retail and foodservice executives,” said Asay, a corn and soybean grower who markets 9,500 hogs annually.

Asay takes issue with trends ranging from “meatless Mondays” to lab-grown meat that are driven by concerns that livestock production is harming the earth.

“Let’s keep the focus on how pork producers are doing what’s right for people, pigs, and the planet,” said Asay, citing the recent Pork Checkoff-funded study from the University of Arkansas. “The study shows that producing a pound of pork in the United States has become much more efficient and environmentally friendly over the past 55 years.”

This means 75.9% less land, 25% less water, and 7% less energy is required today, for an overall 7.7% smaller carbon footprint, he noted.

“We’re much more in tune with the environment today than ever before,” said Asay, who added solar panels to his farm in 2017 to generate renewable energy. “The Arkansas study confirms that as pig farmers, we are making good on our commitment.”

“We need to keep sharing the strides we’ve made to protect the environment with everyone from consumers to foodservice and retail executives.”

– Gary Asay, Osco, IL

Answering the Ongoing Question of “What’s for Dinner?”

TV dinners were once one of the few prepared foods available at the grocery store. But they didn’t turn up on the table too often at Deb Ballance’s home when she was growing up since her mother fixed home-cooked meals.  “Mom prepared traditional cuts of meat, such as slow-cooked pork roasts,” said Ballance, a National Pork Board member whose family operates Legacy Farms, a farrow-to-finish operation in Fremont, North Carolina. “Back then, pork chops were considered convenience food.”

While Ballance carried on many of these traditions when raising her own family, times have changed.  “Now that it’s just my husband and me at home, we want what’s easy,” said Ballance, who works with her husband Todd and their daughter Katlyn to raise 25,000 pigs per year. “My four grown children also live busy lives. They like to cook but want convenience, too.”

No matter how tasty or nutritious pork is, pig farmers won’t be in business unless they meet the needs of today’s consumers, she says.

“I want consumers to know how much we love farm life and the care we take to produce food that they’re excited about cooking, eating and sharing with their family,” Ballance said. “The Checkoff’s Dinner at Home in America research shows that the world of food and how we eat have evolved. The Checkoff is leading the way to help producers, packers, and retailers provide food that diners are looking for.”  Changes may come in the form of smaller packages, pre-seasoned pork, meal kits or multi-cultural menu items.

Ballance likes trends she’s seeing in area grocery stores, including ground pork packages, ready-to-cook cubed pork and prepackaged meal kits complete with meat and chopped vegetables that streamline preparation.  “Recognizing what consumers are looking for and providing it will elevate pork to the go-to protein on people’s plates,” she said.“Providing choices that appeal to time-pressed people who don’t have time to think about meal planning when 5 p.m. rolls around is critical.”

“I want diners to know how much we love farm life and the care we take to produce food they’re excited about cooking, eating and sharing with their family.”

– Deb Ballance, Fremont, NC

The Pork Checkoff partnered with YouTube comedic duo Rhett & Link this summer through their channel Good Mythical Morning. In their YouTube video, which has been viewed over 2.5 million times, they talk about grilling pork and proper endpoint cooking temperatures.