In the past few weeks I’ve put on quite a few miles as I’ve worked with producers and production systems across the upper Midwest. With so much road time I’ve had a chance to think about the importance of pork production as an opportunity for youth to return to the farm. At the same time I’ve remembered all of the controversy that has been associated with pork production in many states.
As I drove the by-ways of the Midwest I saw lots of large planters and ground-preparation equipment. It is not uncommon to have corn/soybean farmers in rural communities farming over 5000 acres of row crops with the more aggressive operators controlling over 15,000 acres. Federally subsidized crop insurance is one of the many risk management tools they have successfully used on their growth path.
Missing in the discussion of ‘big’ pig in rural communities has been the impact of ‘big’ cash grain. As cash grain farms grow in size, they typically begin by-passing rural communities for many of their inputs and buy direct from fertilizer terminals, regional equipment parts dealers (or direct from manufacturers) and genetics suppliers. The man hours of labor to grow an acre of corn or soybeans has declined rapidly, meaning large cash grain farms tend to have lower labor inputs per unit of production.
Contrast that with pork production – it still takes someone in every barn every day to provide care and oversight of the pigs in the facilities. While we have reduced the labor input for pork production compared to what was required 30 years ago with sows housed in outside lots and pigs housed on Cargill style finishing floors, the requirement is still relatively large.
This labor input remains a primary method that young people use to get started in farming. I continue to visit lots of wean-finish and grow-finish sites where the young man/woman doing the daily labor used a production contract as the loan guarantee to finance a hog barn in the community. When the facility is paid off they expect to have an asset on their balance sheet that they can use to further their entry into a full time farming operation. Having access to the manure from the facility also assists their efforts to become full time farmers.
Contrast this method of entry into farming with the needs for someone who wants to start full time as a cash grain farmer. I was with a young man yesterday who estimated his inputs for corn this year at close to $600 per acre. The prospect of $5.50 corn in the coming year was a concern. How was he financing some of his cash grain inputs – through his contract pig barns.
As the pork industry reaches out to our many critics we need to be sure we include in the discussion the role of pork production in helping youth return to rural communities. If citizens want only cash grain production in their region they should be willing to acknowledge the impact of this type of agriculture on their rural communities versus an agriculture base that includes animal agriculture.