Illinois Pork Expo

Illinois pork producer Phil Borgic talks to other producers and legislators at the Illinois Pork Expo in Springfield Jan. 29.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — While coping with uncertainties in the export industry, weather challenges and worldwide disease threats were all topics of high priority for Illinois pork producers at their annual meeting in Springfield this past week, connecting with legislators and consumers also rose to the top.

Illinois Pork Producers Association lobbyist Larry O’Brien said it will be a huge task to get to know all the new Illinois legislators this year.

“It was a big turnover we saw,” he said of the election.

With a new governor and many new legislators who have little direct connections to farming, there are many conversations to be had, he said.

“They may not have any knowledge of agriculture, let alone livestock agriculture,” he said.

Pork producers had a chance to meet some of those new legislators as well as experienced lawmakers at the Illinois Pork Expo Jan. 29.

“It’s a great opportunity as a state representative to find out the innovation and challenges of producers today,” said State Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, whose district includes 65 small towns and rural areas.

It is his third visit to the annual Pork Expo as a legislator, and this time he was also there to congratulate fellow Livingston County residents, the Lehmann Bros. Farms family, for being named IPPA Family of the year.

Unlike Bennett, many legislators haven’t had much contact with farmers yet. With that in mind, IPPA is part of an effort coordinated by the Illinois Farm Bureau to connect people in agriculture with almost all the legislators early this year.

O’Brien said he was set to meet eight to 10 lawmakers in the next two weeks.

“You (pork producers) are the best resource I have,” he said. He encouraged them to talk to their legislators and share their own story. They hear from lobbyists every day, but not as often from farmers, he said.

Although there are challenges ahead, Bill Even, National Pork Board chief executive officer, based in Des Moines, Iowa, said, “The industry itself is all green light go.”

U.S. consumption of pork is at an all-time high, he said, and rapidly changing technology will continue to have an impact on the pork industry. This includes research on a gene-edited pigs resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), blockchain digital recordkeeping and artificial protein production.

He compared the accelerated rate of technology here to the development of the telephone. It took 75 years for half of U.S. households to have phones, and only 10 years for half to have smartphones.

Likewise, the pork industry has to adapt, he said. The checkoff system is one area targeted for change. It has been basically the same for20 years.

“The board of directors thinks it’s time for a modern checkoff,” he said.

In the coming months, producers, consumers, packers and others impacted by the pork industry will be asked to give input, he said.

Another effort to position the industry for the future, Pork 2040, is looking longer range to try and predict what the consumer may want 20 years from now, he said.

In January, the “Dinner at Home in America” campaign was launched. For 50 weeks, new information will be delivered to the supply chain about how to position and sell pork, Even said. This information was gathered in a 2018 survey of 10,000 consumers.

“It’s the smartest, most targeted marketing we’ve ever done,” he said.

The new goals are to understand how consumers like to eat, “provide them with that and introduce them to new flavors and recipes,” Even said. “We are starting where the people are at.”

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.