The Twists and Turns of the Food Animal Industry
by Mike Faga
Having started in the swine industry at a very young age, I have seen many changes over the years. Growing up on a mid-sized diversified farm, in southwest Iowa in the 1970s, I was exposed to the “traditional ways” of utilizing farm animals to provide for our family.
My parents and grandparents raised hogs, beef cattle, dairy cattle and chickens. They also grew corn, oats, soybeans and hay to provide for the animals we raised. My parents and grandparents taught me to be a good steward of the land and to care for and respect the animals we raised for food.
We sold our hogs to a local buying station, our milk was picked up by a tanker truck twice a week, and our beef calves typically went to a local auction as feeders. We were never without milk in the jar; beef, pork or chicken in freezer; or fresh eggs in the basement fruit room.
As I prepared to graduate from high school in the early 1980s it was apparent that there was not going to be room to provide me with an income from our mid-sized farm. I headed off to college unsure of what the future held for me, but knew I wanted to stay involved in agriculture as it was my true passion. My path in college changed a couple times, but I ended up pursuing an Animal Science degree at NWMSU in Maryville, MO.
Niche Production – has always been a way for producers to add value to their products by doing something different or unique that typically adds cost.
After my first year in college, my parents were faced with some tough decisions and decided that financially they could not continue to farm. The livestock was all sold and the 150 acres they were buying from my grandparents was enrolled in the 10-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). After 10 years the land would be paid for and my folks decided that was the best path to take for our family. It turned out to be a good choice for them as it became their retirement “nest egg”.
As I prepared to finish up college in 1986, I was still unsure what the future held for me since farming, as I knew it, wasn’t an option. After college I returned to rural Iowa and started looking for employment. Shortly after college I was hired as a Hog Buyer Trainee with IBP, Inc. in Storm Lake, IA. The path I chose has led me through many changes in food animal production, as I have been able to spend time in various sectors including pork procurement, production and processing over the last 30 plus years.
General Patton; “If everyone is thinking alike, someone’s not thinking”. We must think differently and look “outside the box” for opportunities, as they will arise.
As I reflect today, I recognize that the food animal industry has taken many twists and turns over the years. Below are some of my observations:
- Size of farms – farm size has increased due to several factors, with efficiencies of scale being a major contributor to this shift. Today, more specialization is necessary to compete in the global marketplace. Being an efficient user of available resources is more important today than ever before. As I look back at my past, those that weren’t efficient didn’t survive. (The family farm that I was raised on was partially a victim of these inefficiencies.) We see efficiencies of scale impacting all areas of our economy, so agriculture should be no different.
- Niche Production – has always been a way for producers to add value to their products by doing something different or unique that typically adds cost. As expendable income continues to be adequate for food purchasing, consumers will continue to buy products that make them “feel good”. As a producer of niche products, it seems important for me to know our end-user and establish a good relationship with them before jumping into niche production head first.
- Consumer demand shifts – consumers are on the go more than ever today, so they prefer something quick and easy, but still healthy. Younger consumers seem drawn to trendy items, disregarding price for products that are good and have a story attached. The real margins on these products seem to come from the processor, distributor and retailer, as raw material input costs are minimal if they come from commercial systems. The traditional meat counters, that I knew in my younger days, have been replaced due to improved shelf life from improvements in chilling and packaging of fresh products.
- Challenges - As we are challenged by our competitors we must react and change to meet the demands of our customer. Challenges can come in many shapes and forms – from vegetarianism, alternative proteins, other food animal proteins and even ourselves. With the world population at 7.8 billion people and expected growth around 1%, there will continue to be opportunities in the food business. How those opportunities unfold depends on how we react to opposition, regulations, and consumer preferences. One of my favorite quotes comes from General Patton; “If everyone is thinking alike, someone’s not thinking”. We must think differently and look “outside the box” for opportunities, as they will arise.
Looking back over the years I have seen a lot of changes – from shared party phone lines in the 1960s and 70s to cellular service in almost every part of the civilized world today. Change has happened, is happening and will continue to happen – it’s how we react to it that is important.
As I remember the stories of my grandfather starting out in the 1920s, I’m confident we can persevere. He undoubtedly faced challenges raising crops and livestock in his 70+ years and if we can demonstrate half the determination that he did, we’ll find success! Remember to think differently!
Mike Faga has worked for Lynch Livestock’s Pork Marketing Division since 2015. He has spent his entire career in the swine industry working in procurement, production, human resources and education. Faga resides in Waverly, IA with his wife Kelly, and has three children. He enjoys biking, hiking, hunting, gardening, and has a passion for barbequing and smoking meats.