Grit and Passion: Rommereim Reflects on Swine Industry

“Forward-thinking” is critical to remain relevant in today’s changing food-chain environment, said Steve Rommereim, National Pork Board president. ( Jennifer Shike )

The worn photo album illustrating Steve Rommereim’s family heritage is not unlike that of the U.S pork industry.

“These pictures and the story behind them are for the most part a good representation of those that immigrated to the Midwest,” began Rommereim in his retiring address as National Pork Board president last Friday at the National Pork Industry Forum. “What we all have today is all based on the hard work, passion, grit and brains of those that have come before us.”

On a quiet hill overlooking Iowa and Nebraska, Rommereim said he has a hard time imagining the courage and determination generations before him possessed as they traveled 5,000 miles to the farm he calls home today.

He and his wife, Charlotte, live in Alcester, S.D., on a farm settled by Swedish immigrants in the latter half of the 1800s. Their family started raising hogs in 1918, specializing in Poland China hogs, known for their ability to produce fat. In the mid-60s, the trends began to change as demand for lard dropped and a leaner product became the new normal.                

Their family transitioned to raising Duroc and Spotted swine until 2000 when a major move to integrated systems took place in their area, dropping the demand of farm-raised genetics dramatically. In the years following, they transitioned from producing genetics in outdoor pens and on pasture to producing commercial hogs. 

“Pigs have been part of everyday life for our family, including generation number six, who are slowly taking over our farming operation,” he said. “This couldn’t make me happier.”

The Pork Industry Evolves

When Rommereim considers the changes his farm has gone through, he sees many parallels to the pork industry.

“In the 1800s, life on the prairie was difficult at best and some of our homesteading families had a few pigs around for their own needs. As the population in this country continued to grow, markets developed, and hogs started to be raised for profit,” he said.

The industrial age brought machinery and more fertile land into production. Packing facilities, local elevators, feed and seed companies, all changed food production dramatically, he added.

“The individual farmers decided they needed a unified voice both in legislative and regulatory worlds as well as product promotion, education and research. Commodity groups started springing up in the 1940s with pork starting around specific breed groups that already were working towards these goals within the breeds,” Rommereim said.

With a bit of money and a vision, the American Pork Producers Association became the first national pork association of record in 1940. In 1964, the National Swine Growers Council voted to change their name to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

Rommereim discussed the evolution of the Pork Checkoff, the “Pork, the Other White Meat” campaign and the 2001 court order for NPPC to split to pursue legislative and regulatory efforts and the National Pork Board to pursue promotion, education and research.

“I believe we can duplicate the successes of the past by using their example for Checkoff 4.0,” he said. “In the midst of all the change happening on the farm as well as the rest of the food chain, its apparent that we needed a reset.”     

A Look Ahead

“Forward-thinking” is critical to remain relevant in today’s changing food-chain environment, he said. Pork 2040, a research project centered around where to invest dollars internationally for the next 20 + years, will help provide the foundation needed for the decades ahead.

He highlighted groundbreaking research efforts focused on the wise investment of dollars for understanding the needs and wants of the consumer, the We Care Commitment program to revitalize sustainability messaging, and the Secure Pork Supply program to help producers deal with ongoing threats of foreign animal diseases.

“The pork industry, as I’ve shown here with this brief history lesson, has high expectations and is willing to sacrifice to make things happen,” he said. “The results are best quantified by the return on your investment. 25 to 1 is better than I alone have ever done.”

He urged producers to review the successes of the past in order to best meet the needs of the present and adapt to the changing needs of the future.

“It all starts with a conversation, a relationship with one another as pig farmers and between pig farmers and the food chain,” Rommereim said. “The strength of this organization will always be the relationships of men and women with a common goal of people, pigs and the planet.”