Bill Even Q&A

Bill Even is the CEO for the National Pork Board. He joined the organization in June 2016 after previously serving as the industry relations lead for DuPont Pioneer. Prior to that, he served as Secretary of Agriculture in South Dakota.

Even and his family own and operate a fifth-generation diversified crop and livestock operation near Humboldt, South Dakota, where they raise corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and cattle.

IFT: There is a great deal of talk about the possibility of euthanizing pigs of all ages due to the slowdown in the packing industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. What sort of guidance is the Pork Board offering to producers who may have to take this step?

EVEN: Farmers’ first priority is caring for their animals. With packing plants working to get back to full capacity, some pigs are being rerouted to other facilities, but often there is no room.

Farmers have done everything they can to hold pigs that are ready for market, working with nutritionists and veterinarians to ensure their care until packing plants are fully operational. However, barns can become overcrowded, limiting access to food and water, which presents animal welfare challenges. The National Pork Board and the farmers we represent believe it is unethical to allow any animal to suffer.

The National Pork Board compiled resources for producers at pork.org/covid19 to help manage the impact of COVID-19 on farms. (Resources including webinars that) may be helpful for emergency depopulation and disposal and are available under the Farm Emergency Planning Resources link.

USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service is offering financial and technical assistance for disposal.

IFT: How difficult is it going to be to explain to consumers why this is being done, especially if it is widespread?

EVEN: COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on both people and businesses globally. America’s pork producers work hard every day to give the best possible care to their pigs so they can produce safe and high-quality pork for our consumers. The backup in the supply chain has forced producers to make incredibly tough decisions on their farms.

We are being transparent with consumers. Pork producers have appeared on national news programs telling their stories and explaining how they are working with their veterinarians to ensure humane treatment despite the circumstances.

The Pork Checkoff has been watching consumer behavior, conversations and opinions related to this issue very closely. The data show awareness of COVID’s impact on the pork industry is high, but consumers remain confident in the safety of our product.

IFT: Many producers are donating pork to local food banks and other agencies. What are some of the options available to producers who would like to make this type of donation?

EVEN: While pork producers are working hard to keep their families and employees healthy, they also are supporting their communities. As of mid-April, producers, food companies and state pork associations have donated over 56 million servings of protein and $4 million to help feed their neighbors. There also are numerous examples of personal protective equipment donations for frontline healthcare workers.

An example is “Pass the Pork,” an effort by the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to help Iowa pig farmers donate pigs to Iowa food bank feeding programs. Local meat processors are extending their hours of operation to process and package the pork donations to help meet the growing demand for food bank and food pantry resources. Iowa food banks are getting the pork into the hands of those in need.

Several state pork associations have similar programs. More examples can be seen at bit.ly/2AwsAF5.

IFT: How significantly has COVID-19 affected the mindset of the Pork Board and other aspects of the industry?

EVEN: The National Pork Board has been working on crisis preparedness for several decades. Before the pandemic, we had been preparing a response to a potential foreign animal disease outbreak. Although this situation is quite a bit different than any of us could have ever predicted or prepared for, we have been able to quickly pivot and leverage that training in response to the COVID-19 impacts. Our focus has been on supporting producers faced with unprecedented operational and management decisions; collaborating with supply chain partners to help get the processing plants running again and protecting consumer demand for pork.

IFT: Are you working with producers to develop long-range plans for dealing with the effects of the pandemic, especially since some health experts are forecasting a second wave this fall?

EVEN: Clearly producers are focused on getting through the next few weeks and understanding how the plant schedules are impacting them. But in the long-term, producers are working with their partners — lenders, growers, veterinarians — to determine their path forward. Checklists, farm plans and access to industry experts through webinars are examples of how we are assisting producers as they navigate all of this.

If you look back over the last few decades at the challenges faced by producers — the ’80s farm crisis, 1998 price struggles, H1N1 — our industry has changed each and every time, but producers persevere.

IFT: Has anything positive come out of the pandemic?

EVEN: What I have learned over the last months as we deal with COVID-19 is that we are fighting this battle together as an industry. Producers depend on their organizations to get them the tools, resources, and information they need on their farms to make some of the most demanding decisions of their career. The National Pork Board, National Pork Producers Council, American Association of Swine Veterinarians, North American Meat Association, and state pork associations are the troops in lockstep with our producers.

If there is anything positive coming out of all of this, it is that pig farmers are resilient. There is strength in collaboration. And, being part of a farm community that cares so much, all for the sake of pigs, is powerful.

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.