Curtis Meier knows a thing or two about Iowa’s pork industry.
He grew up on a hog and cattle farm near Clarinda, raised his family on a farm, was leader of the Iowa Pork Producers Association in 2003 and is set to take the helm again as the 2017 Iowa Pork Producers Association president.
"It’s always interesting to work for the pork industry. I’ve always said it’s not a job, it’s an opportunity," Meier said.
Raising pigs is a bit different now compared to the 1970s, when he returned to the farm in Clarinda to farm with his dad, he said.
"Just like most producers then, we were farrowing in 4-pen hog houses and pasture farrowing. That was really before new technology kicked in," Meier said.
He and his wife Brenda were married in 1971, and got their start in farming.
In 1973 they built their first farrow-to-finish hog barn.
"I figured there had to be an easier way (than farrowing outdoors), and I put up a hog building," Meier said.
Then, they raised about 50 to 60 sows and grew 400 acres of grain.
With his father, the farm continued to grow. They gradually farmed more acres of land, and added more hogs to their farm. Farming with his dad, Curtis was in charge of the family’s hogs while his dad focused on raising cattle.
Farming is a family affair
The Meiers have two children involved with the farming operation, their son Michael and daughter-in-law Angie, and their daughter Leah and son-in-law Kevin Coston. Curtis and Brenda also have five grandchildren.
The Meier family added more sows and more land to grow the farm to accommodate the next generation.
The Meier family now raises about 160 sows and markets about 2,500 head per year in a farrow-to-finish operation. They also raise cattle, and with the assistance of the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, added a monoslope barn to expand the family’s cattle operation in 2016. They grow 4,000 acres of corn, soybeans and rye.
Though each family member has their specialty on the hog and cattle farm, Meier said it’s a true family operation.
"On weaning day we’re all involved," he said.
Expanding world markets
There’s no doubt that every family member pitches in to help as Meier travels the world promoting pork.
He’s visited Vietnam, Japan, China, and other countries, each time showing business partners photos of his farm, his family, but wondering how pork markets there would grow. He admits, though, that trade trips like those have been fruitful.
"You put a little jingle in their pockets and the first thing they look for is protein," Meier said. "That’s where pork comes in."
Photos and personal visits help buyers in other countries put a face to U.S. pig farming, he said.
"It’s always interesting to talk to our foreign markets. They say they like to see the face of a producer," Meier said.
Visiting with buyers in other countries helps groups like the Iowa Pork Producers Association understand what type of cuts and products their customers prefer.
During the three separate trips Meier has taken to Japan, he’s noticed changes in pork cuts and products. He’s seen thicker-sliced pork chops and even ground pork sandwiches at a McDonald’s there.
However, competition is strong there, Meier said.
U.S. pork exports to Japan totaled $1.6 billion in 2015, down from nearly $2 billion in 2011 and 2012, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
"We’re not the only kid on the block that’s going to export pork to Japan and China," Meier said. "At several retailers in Japan we saw boxes of meat from Denmark, Canada, and Brazil. And the EU (European Union) in still a strong player there."
Buyers in China say they want more ractopamine-free pork from the United States. Meier raises pigs without using ractopamine, but respects those who use it on their farms.
"In some ways I’d like to see it (ractopamine use) go away, but there are producers who say they’re leaving 10 percent of the benefits on the table if they don’t use it," he said.
"Sometimes I think it’s just a tool China is using to protect its domestic producers, and have more control over the imports. Science-based research says there’s no risk to food safety, but it’s their choice," he said.
Trade missions provide a first-hand look at emerging markets, and demonstrate the need for trade agreements which would open up lines to trade, Meier said.
"We need trade agreements," Meier said. "We might have the most cost-effective option, but when you add on the tariffs we’re not always in the market. We need some way to level the playing field."
As pig raisers work to raise safe, healthy pork, they do so with the environment in mind. Meier is no different.
In addition to raising hogs and cattle and growing crops, Meier is also a Page County soil and water district commissioner.
He takes pride in his county, which is seen as a leader in conservation in the state.
"We’re the No. 1 county in the state in terracing," he said. The Meiers have installed 20 miles of terraces on their farm. "Farmers are spending money on conservation efforts."
That’s because topsoil in the county is shallow, Meier said, and terracing is one way to keep the soil in place.
"People realize they have to take care of it or it’s going to be gone," Meier said.
There’s a seven year waiting list for cost-share dollars in the county, he said.
"We’re also seeing more farmer acceptance of cover crops here," Meier said.
Even during periods of low grain prices, farmers are trying cover crops on their farm.
"Cover crops might take a dip due to financial situation today, but our acres here in Page County have increased more yet in cover crops; people are seeing the value," he said.
Meier has grown rye as a cover crop, which he then harvests for cattle forage.
"There’s been instances where double-crop soybeans after rye has out-yielded our other beans. They always say that what you see above ground you have that much in the root system. So when you get rye that’s head high, imagine what it does for soil health," Meier said.
And while taking care of the land and livestock are important, the Meier family has also shown care for their neighbors and their community.
The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers recognized the Meier family with the Wergin Good Farm Neighbor Award in 2015. The award, made possible through the financial support of CSIF, recognizes Iowa livestock farmers who take pride in doing things right. This includes caring for the environment and their livestock and being good neighbors. Meier said he’s proud of that award.
"A lot of great people ahead of me have received this award; it’s an elite group, and I really feel honored to be a part of that group," he said.