SIOUX CENTER – Even after 52 years of raising pork, Marv Rietema, of Sioux Center, said he is still surprised by the opportunities that present themselves to those in the industry.
Marv and Helene Rietema were named 2015 Iowa Master Pork Producers in February.
That same month, Marv Rietema was part of an IPPA trade mission to Cuba, returning in time to attend the National Pork Industry Forum in Indianapolis, Indiana, last weekend.
“Little did I realize,” Rietema said, “when I was a little kid telling my dad I wanted to go home and do chores, rather than plow with a tractor, all that I’d someday be doing.”
“The whole world (seemed to be) going into farming as it was back then.”
After early achievements in FFA, earning Star Farmer and Greenhand degrees, plus earning other organization accomplishments, Rietema wanted to be a veterinarian. He started on that journey at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, where he met Helene.
Rietema found himself playing a lead role in Sioux County and the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
He serves as northwest Iowa region director for IPPA. His Cuba visit was part of an Iowa Economic Development Authority’s first visit to Cuba in a decade.
Joining him on the five-day trip to Havana, made possible by President Barack Obama’s July 2015 resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, were Ken Ries, of Ryan, IPPA vice president of northeast operations; Dr. Howard Hill, of Cambridge, IPPA board member and immediate past president and member of the National Pork Producers Council; and Steph Carlson, director of producer outreach and federal policy for IPPA.
The visit included meetings with U.S. and Cuban government officials, associations and university professors and tours of farms, agriculture facilities and other sites.
Rietema said the team met its goal of learning more about Cuba’s changing economy and opportunities. He said the visit emphasized IPPA and NPPC as moving forward on behalf of the nation’s pork producers.
“I wasn’t a thousand percent sure how the Cuban people would greet us,” Rietema said reflecting on the visit. “Would they be hostile because of the embargo we’d put on them years ago?”
Instead, Rietema said they were greeted with open arms.
“It was amazing and (it was) apparent that they are really looking forward to the day that free trade can happen and that these are people that really want us,” he said.
“The trip was important to me not only because it’s exciting, but because it’s something that’s never been done before,” Rietema added. “People may look at you and say why visit there, a county of only 11 million people?”
“We’re hopeful the long-range results (additional U.S. pork exports) will answer that question.”
What he’s referring to is the hope of eventually adding Cuban pork imports to Iowa and U. S. sales.
Rietema said he would not expect any increase in Cuba’s on-farm pork production for some time due to the nature of the island’s agriculture picture in general and overall subsidized economic system.
He cited as one example the government’s ownership of a dairy cow. When, and if, milk is sold, half the return goes to the government and the remaining half to the dairyman.
When a cow calves, the calf also belongs to the government.
He said the team learned that under the government system a worker receives $30 a month for raising food, and there was no good incentive to become a farmer.
Cuban agriculture today, Rietema said, is about 40 percent fallow ground (formerly used for sugar cane production). Few want to farm despite Cuba needing to import 80 percent of its food.
“Most of the ag industry is in shambles,” he said, “with no new opportunities for pork production because the government would have to get behind it.”
Large, rather than small tractors used for farming, are bought and used from Russia, Rietema said. Repair parts as needed are made by the farmers themselves.
However, Rietema said he observed Havana residents show real progress in restoring neglected downtown buildings. Havana residents rely on older cars (of 1948 to 1956 vintage) for transportation.
Individuals showed considerable knowledge in political news within the United States.
Rietema said the visiting delegation saw some indication of U.S, food products finding their way into Cuba.
A pending arrival of up to 600,000 Hy-Line baby chicks possibly setting the stage for future layer/breeding flocks for Cuba’s poultry industry was discussed.
An accompanying yeast-based anti-salmonella feed for the future production was to also be included in the plans.
Marv and Helene Rietema are part owners and managers of a niche pork operation – R & H Pigs, a value-added pork operation marketing 20,000 pigs annually
“I’d wanted to do something different, and it’s been a good choice,” Marv Rietema said in reference to the program and his earlier sale of his former Northwest Order Buyers business, in Sioux Center.
That operation often included upward to 12 auctions weekly, buying and selling 100,000 to 200,000 pigs annually.
“You know, however, I think I’m still busier than I was,” he said.
The current niche program involves buying 600 isowean pigs weekly and growing them to weights of between 80 to 100 pounds, then shipped to Asian markets as roaster pigs.
He said they mix business responsibilities with community contributions, including membership on the Sioux County 4-H Fair Board and associated 4-H activities, which he said is building strong families.
There are also positions with his local church and school district and Dordt College endowments.
He is a 12-year National Pork Industry Forum delegate, a Sioux County Pork Producer worker and Food for Life pork donor.
“What I’m doing now at this stage of my life, and want to do as I can as a Master Pork Producer, is to give back to the industry that has been wonderful to me,” Rietema said. “It’s payback time for the opportunities given me.”
He said he has a passion for pork.
“To some people perhaps it’s just a job, but I’ve always loved pigs and the people that raise them,” Rietema said. “They’re down-to-earth people and the salt of the earth.
“For us, it’s a special honor from our peers who think highly enough of us to say you’ve done a good job or, as the Bible says, well done good and faithful servant.”
As he looked across the counter at Helene, he added, “I think we both agree the pigs have provided our family with a good living and the time to spend with our family that not everyone has had the time to do.
“We’re very fortunate.”
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