Degners look over careers, industry changes
AMES – As Iowa pork producers and their counterparts nationwide focus on this year’s National Pork Month activities, one longtime name in the industry will be wearing a different cap and finding the pace a somewhat quieter one.
Rich Degner, Iowa Pork Producers Association chief executive officer for the past 17 years, and 35-year staff member of the organization, retired on Sept. 30.
His wife, Nancy Degner, retired on the same day as executive director of the Iowa Beef Industry Council.
He said his experiences during this time have been rewarding ones, at times challenging, as part of an industry important to Iowa and its producers.
“Our pork producers have, through the years, done a good job of adjusting to changes in the industry and coming up with solutions to challenges presented by the industry,” Degner said.
“We saw producers of the late 1980s and early 1990s accepting the need to become not only producers, but finance managers of their operations as we initiated the Pork College approach,” Degner added. “They accepted the need to adopt a proposed five-year business plan incorporating concepts centering on cost and profit needs, analyzing their assets.”
Another development came in 1989 working with IPPA as a start-up.
They partnered “with Iowa Economic Development for our trade mission to Japan with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad focusing on an aggressive international trade objective.”
Things kept rolling with additional programs to aid producers, he said, including pork quality certification and coming to terms with issues such as new manure management regulations.
Other steps forward included those to certification of hog transport and packer audit certification data and assessment.
Degner added a tremendous success was the early Bush administration’s efforts to send pork bellies to Poland. This was needed for Polish residents coming out of the Iron Curtain.
Still other adjustments include production geared to pork products meeting changing consumer needs.
“This, in some instances, meant a real evolution with regard to hog types to produce the quality pork products our consumers want,” Degner said. “Accompanying this has been the producers’ need to provide an adequate income to feed their families.
“Among our goals, and one worthy of pork month recognition, has been to embrace production for flavorful and tasteful pork and new products for our consumers.”
Degner said while it’s a matter of taking one thing at a time there’s an absolute ever-awareness necessary to the advent of foot and mouth disease were it to come into the United States.
Its capability for severe challenges are not unlike that precipitated by the recent avian flu within the poultry industry, Degner said.
Activism, too, employed by organizations to discredit the industry necessitates awareness.
Degner said he sees a strong future for young producers to come enter the industry and advises them to take advantage of internships made possible through IPPA and National Pork Producers as well as agricultural business organizations.
“These internships and the broad exposure to the pork industry can be a grade model for their future be it in production, international job opportunities or agribusiness,” he said.
Degner, who worked in Extension following graduation from Iowa State University, credits several mentors for planting the seed for his career.
They include the late John Rix, a longtime Le Mars Community School FFA instructor.
Others, he said, include IPPA’s Mike Telford, who showed him the fine points of working with Iowa legislators and regulators, as well as former IPPA director Don Gingrich, of Parnell, as a producer active in service with humility.
Degner’s achievements during his tenure did not go unnoticed by co-workers at IPPA, including its past president, Bill Tentinger.
“In his own, always behind the scenes way, Rich has left a permanent mark on the pork industry in Iowa,” Tentinger said. “His foresight and ability to forward-think has always impressed me.
“He has had the ability to take producers with not much worldly experience and turn them into worldwide ambassadors for the pork industry in Iowa.”
A family affair
When it came, retirement turned into a family affair for Rich and Nancy Degner.
Nancy Degner credited ISU faculty and Extension specialists with guidance throughout her career.
“(They’ve) always been there to help me when I’ve had questions about beef and beef production,” Nancy Degner said, who met Richard while both were ISU students.
She initially joined the IBIC as a home economist after having worked as a Le Mars home economics instructor and at Harker’s Wholesale Meat in Le Mars.
One of the biggest changes with IBIC was in marketing and communications.
“When I started in the mid-1970s,” Degner said, “there were three TV networks and public TV.
“There are now hundreds of TV stations for consumers to choose from, and an uncountable number of other news sources through the internet.
“Most newspapers and radio stations had farm reporters, but now I can count the number of farm reporters in Iowa on one hand.
She added that computers, internet and social media did not exist and that communication with consumers has been constantly changing.
“The consumer today is asking more about where their food comes from, and I think modern agriculture has a great story to tell,” Degner said.
She said consumers define the beef industry with a picture of cattle grazing in the pasture and a great steak on the plate.
In between is where activist groups use questions like antibiotics, growth hormones, animal diseases to create concern.
“It’s all about marketing,” Degner said, “to sell a product, and unfortunately some in the beef industry are using these same techniques to promise their beef is safer than traditional beef.
“We need to increase efforts to tell the story of modern beef production, its benefits and gain consumer trust.”
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