Pork producers converge on future of local economy
By ELIJAH DECIOUS
The Iowa Pork Producers Association was presented Thursday with new opportunities through partnership with the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and Iowa Central Community College to continue to anchor agriculture in the future of Iowa’s economy.
“We all work together as a system,” said Kelly Halsted, economic development director for the Alliance. “It’s about that collaboration and teamwork.”
“We all live in areas with educational and job deficits,” said Gregg Hora, former president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “We live in parts of Iowa where we have those concerns about keeping people in our rural communities. What we’re hoping you can take away today is what will happen in your part of the state.”
Iowa is in third place in the U.S. for the percentage of manufacturing jobs it has, behind Indiana and Wisconsin. But while many think of Fort Dodge as a manufacturing town, a major part of the industry stems from agriculture.
“The DNA of Webster County is agriculture,” said Halsted. “The foundation for manufacturing is from agriculture, and it does provide great jobs.”
Over the last five years, the sector has seen 7% growth in the area with average earnings over $85,555.
Iowa had a 2% growth with average wages of $73,777.
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing makes up the lion’s share of the local sector at 45%, followed by basic chemical at 18% and animal food at 15%.
Overall, about 80% of the local economy is based on agriculture, even in the sectors not strictly labeled as such.
“People don’t understand how much is derived from corn,” Halsted said, with a list that includes obscure items like lactic acid for diaper absorption.
With that in mind, producers in Iowa are learning how critical it is for Iowa to maintain its stronghold in agriculture that gives the state a foot in the door to international markets.
“We’re competing with Malaysia and Brazil, not just Webster City and Des Moines. It’s a global market we’re competing in,” Halsted said.
To that end, producers received a pitch to invest in the future workers in these industries from Afton Holt, owner of Cornerpost Marketing of Fort Dodge.
The Career Ag Academy is seeking initial support and investments in a capital campaign to put two full-time teachers on the Hamilton County Fairgrounds with a new facility targeting high school and college age students.
The new facility will include a 49,000-square-foot addition to the existing Hamilton County Fairgrounds featuring an open livestock barn, swine education center and meat science lab.
“We wanted hands-on area for education,” Holt said, telling producers that Iowa Central intends to bring in new meat science and production classes to their schools in the future.
Even if students don’t go on to a four-year or other post-secondary education in that area, it could prepare them for direct entry into the workforce.
The program, which would teach five classes with 20 students each per semester, is currently seeking large donors and endorsement before public announcements early next year.
“I worry more about if we don’t do this,” said Shelly Blunk, director of economic development at Iowa Central. “If we don’t get these concepts to fruition, where does that leave us in 10 years?”
She said continued investment is critical for the industry to ensure a future work force, perhaps cogent advice as rural Iowa fights trends of depopulation.
With Iowa State University and Iowa Central on board, Holt said the idea is a good fit for the area.
“We’re in a good pocket of area that’s very collaborative in nature,” she said.
They’re hoping with the community college’s ability to nimbly adapt to local circumstances with different types of training and classes, the ag academy’s new pipeline of high school and college students into the industry and the blessing of local leaders and industries, they can continue to keep Fort Dodge on the globe as a force to be reckoned with.
But right now, national politics is messing with the pork industry’s standing in the world.
“It’s been difficult because we’ve lost some of our secure markets,” said Hora, in the aftermath of a tit-for-tat trade war with China since the Trump administration imposed austere tariffs on a broad swathe of Chinese products.
The Chinese have responded in kind, opting to fill the gap in supply with pork and soybeans from Canada, the European Union, Brazil and Argentina. Even as African swine fever threatens to potentially wipe out half of China’s domestic pork production by next year, local producers fear they will shift their dietary customs to poultry before they increase their American pork imports again.
“Poultry can get to the market place quicker than pork or beef,” he explained.
Hora said that South Korea has picked up some of the volume from American pork stocks with the loss of one of the United States’ top five pork markets.
It remains to be seen whether the major export market will vanish permanently the longer it remains at an impasse.
“(Pork producers are doing) about as can be expected,” said Trent Teeley, current president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “Anxious.”
He said the biggest hope out of the war being held by farmers now is passing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
“If we get it done, it will help with the China trade deal,” he said.
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