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Labor, trade and animal disease issues highlighted at World Pork Expo

The World Pork Expo, hosted by the National Pork Producers Council, was held in Des Moines on June 8-10.

Wolters press conference.JPG
Terry Wolters, president of the NPPC board of directors, speaks at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines on June 8, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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DES MOINES, Iowa — More access to foreign-born workers and the threats of African Swine Fever and California's Proposition 12 are some of the issues on the minds of U.S. pork producers.

These concerns were raised by the National Pork Producers Council and discussed at the World Pork Expo, held in Des Moines on June 8-10 this year.

Access to labor continues to be an issue for most industries, including pork producers.

"For us pork producers, we're located in rural America, and access to labor continues to be a challenge," said Terry Wolters, president of the NPPC board of directors. "We have the ability to raise the most efficient, affordable product on the globe, and if we had access to better labor resources, we definitely could improve that opportunity for our producers."

Wolters said the pork industry needs better access to foreign-born workers.

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"Foreign-born workers are a big part of what we do, and they come here, and they work well," said Wolters.

He said the H-2A program needs to be updated not only so that more pork operations can access workers, but also for the H-2A workers to stay longer.

"(H-2A workers) can't stay for an extended period of time, which really puts us producers in a challenging situation, because the jobs in our farms are very technical," said Wolters. "With the time it takes for that technical training — and to get an employee up and running and being really efficient in their job — then it's time for them to go home."

Proposition 12

Another looming issue discussed at the expo was the interstate dispute regarding California Proposition 12, a 2018 ballot measure that requires all pork sold in California to be raised “free-housed,” or “group-housed," rather than in individual stalls.

The proposition — which was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022, but is pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the matter — calls for a minimum of 24 square feet of space for each individual sow at a facility in order for California to allow the purchase of the pork.

In Iowa — which is home to almost one-third of America’s hog population — independently owned sow operations represent about 40% of sow operations statewide, according to the council. If the measure takes effect, producers who want to sell their product in the large California market will be forced to remodel barns at a time when construction costs are high.

"There's no question that Proposition 12 is on the horizon, and this is a state that is trying to impose regulation on how we as producers are required to raise our product, and how we're supposed to run our businesses," said Wolters of the measure.

African Swine Fever

African Swine Fever — a highly contagious and deadly infection found in Chinese hog herds since 2018 — has yet to be detected in the U.S. Still, the potential threat of an outbreak weighs heavily on pork producers, especially in Iowa, which leads the country in pork production, exports and hog population.

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With recurring outbreaks reported in China as recent as this spring, the NPPC is calling on pork producers to help prevent a U.S. outbreak by being aware of state and federal guidance regarding reporting, said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the NPPC.

A case of African Swine Fever in the U.S. would halt pork commerce nationwide for a minimum of three days, according to Wagstrom.

"The threat of African Swine Fever and foreign animal disease ultimately threatens our trade markets," said Wolters.

He said with U.S. pork having 30% of its product exported, the industry need to make sure those markets are open, and they are in good collaboration with trading partners. 

"We want to maintain that 30% market that we have with the current countries we're trading with," he said. 

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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