Malcolm DeKryger's mission is clear: it's time to reach out to city dwellers, touching those lives that have the most impact on the future of U.S. pork production.
“We have a very strong heart tug, if you will, to reach out to our customers. The mass amount of our meat and food is not consumed out here in the country — it is in the city, so we are reaching out to the city,” he emphasizes.
DeKryger is vice president of Belstra Milling Co. Inc., a large agricultural presence based in tiny DeMotte in northwestern Indiana. He says the generations that separate city and farm dwellers have fueled a “growing disconnect” as to the role of animal production in the nation's food supply.
To dissolve those differences, Belstra Milling has been inviting city folks out to their farms. “We are talking about pig farm public relations reaching the urban and non-agricultural dwellers. We have been doing that, somewhat, over a number of years. But we have really felt an impetus the last 2-3 years to try to reach out to people at a number of different levels,” DeKryger explains.
In 2007, Belstra Milling hosted a “day on the farm” for 50-60 local and state legislators, restaurant employees, school officials and others to view and learn about the nuances of pork production. Groups are bused to farm sites where farm managers offer details that can be seen through several picture windows added to the barns or when curtains are dropped for viewing.
This past March, Belstra Milling held their annual technology meeting, which they entitled: “Thriving in Perilous Times.” About 60 area residents attended. The highlight was an address supporting “The Moral Acceptability of Raising Livestock for Human Consumption.” The speaker was Wes Jamison, a leading animal welfare specialist and research fellow at the University of Florida.
DeKryger says a number of key employees at Belstra are part of a large settlement of Dutch Reformed Christians in northwest Indiana who are involved in dairy and pork production. Similar Dutch Reformed settlements working in the dairy and pig production sectors are found in other areas of the country, including Michigan, California, northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota, all with interwoven roots.
Several months ago, DeKryger says an article appeared in their denominational church magazine that came out very much against modern livestock production. DeKryger says this attack prompted him to write a rebuttal article for the publication, explaining the growing chasm between farm and urban citizens.
“Overall, we are trying to reach across and educate folks that hog farmers are professionals, that they care for their animals, that they are ethicists and that they deal with living and dying every single day.
“We were the original animal welfare people, and we believe we were also called (by God) to use what we have been given,” DeKryger notes.
Century of Silence
But for the last century, farmers have immersed themselves in their profession, seemingly isolated and insulated from society, DeKryger says.
“I think there are a lot of farmers who have been shocked, amazed and scared to think that somebody actually has an opinion about what they have been doing out there — and that now somebody (animal activists, etc.) thinks they know better about livestock production than they do. The people who are complaining, however, have never worked there,” he counters.
It's not that farmers can't communicate. It's just that they don't relish the role of being in the public relations business — and that is where DeKryger feels comfortable serving as an advocate for agriculture.
He says his position as a member of the Animal Health and Food Security Policy Committee for the National Pork Producers Council has also helped prepare him as a spokesman.
That role has helped teach him the pork industry must become more proactive in explaining what they do and how they do it.
For its part, Belstra Milling is striving to be that model — sharing the company's history and production achievements with the industry and the public.
At the end of July, Belstra Milling hosted an informational session at the mill and a farm tour for about 50 Extension swine educators and others coordinated through the National Pork Board. National Hog Farmer magazine was among the invited guests.
The Extension swine educators group toured Iroquois Valley Swine Breeders, a 1,150-sow, farrow-to-finish farm constructed in 1992, one of four active gilt multiplier production units in the Belstra system. They learned that several of the Belstra units have hit 30 pigs/sow/year for extended periods of time throughout this past year. They have also held sow mortalities to 3%.
Cambalot Swine Breeders (CBS), a PIC daughter nucleus gilt multiplier, is being rebuilt and modified to meet market demand. After CBS is repopulated this fall, the Belstra Group (hog division) will total about 11,500 sows and five production companies (farms) that produce four different lines of gilts for PIC, according to Jon Hoek, head of production at Belstra Milling Co., Inc.
The Belstra Group designs, permits and oversees building construction, and hires staff to supervise the gilt production farms, four of which are located in northwest Indiana. A fifth, three-site farm is located just across the border in Illinois, and all are within a 40-mile radius of Belstra's main offices in DeMotte.
Belstra Milling is a 54-year-old company with 100 employees, 75 who work on the farms, and the remainder who work at the feedmill, Hoek explained to the Extension educator tour group. The mill produces about 110,000 tons of feed annually; 65% of the feed tonnage goes into swine feed, and the remainder is produced for the large dairy presence in northwest Indiana.
“For too long we (in the pork industry) have been focused on productivity, and by having our ‘Day at the Farm,’ we are asking people to come to our ‘house’ and let us tell our story,” remarks Belstra Milling Co. President Tim Belstra. “We want to lift the curtain of anonymity.”
Masters at telling their story of dairy production is the Fair Oaks Farms (IN) Dairy Adventure (www.fairoaksdairyadventure.com), a short distance south of Beltsra Milling on Interstate 65. Along the way, the drive is punctuated by billboard signs inviting visitors to stop and tour the 30,000-cow working farm, birthing center and adjacent retail store and restaurant.
“It provides us with an excellent opportunity to promote both agriculture and the dairy industry and some of its products,” said CEO Gary Corbett to the swine Extension tour group. The facility opened in January 2004. In the last 15 months, an estimated 450,000 people have visited and/or taken the bus tour of the production facilities.
Corbett says flatly the goal behind building the dairy center was “to combat the lack of positive press.” The facility caters to groups who can sign up to take a bus tour of the nearby production facilities.
Last fall, national dairy officials came to Fair Oaks and surveyed visitors. The survey revealed that 50% of visitors felt they had a better feeling about the dairy industry after viewing the facility, and 50% felt the same; but amazingly, not a single visitor expressed displeasure, says Corbett. Twelve percent of the visitors said they would increase their consumption of dairy products as a result of the visit.
The Fair Oaks Dairy has also partnered and participated in a major dairy exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Adapting the Dairy Template
Belstra's DeKryger is excited about the fact that the Pork Board has voted to allocate funds to significantly expand the current pork display at the Chicago museum, which receives 1.8 million visitors annually.
Hoek has estimated it would cost the pork industry about $250,000 to $350,000 to place a sizeable, five-year exhibit at the Chicago museum, and based on attendance figures, cost about four cents per exposure to relay pork's message to each visitor.
In DeKryger's mind, more checkoff funds should be used to promote events attracting a broader urban audience of potential pork consumers. Promoting pork at county and state fairs and race car events, for example, basically provides pork to those consumers who already are pork lovers, and doesn't reach potential pork consumers in large metropolitan areas, he concludes.