Editor’s Note: Farm Journal’s Pork editor JoAnn Alumbaugh spent several hours with Neil Dierks to capture his thoughts on producers, the pork industry, and his career. In this second segment, Dierks talks about his relationship with producers, and his optimism about the future of the industry.
Dierks is a historian and story-teller. He recalled reading about Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, a German monk who in 1846 founded the first Benedictine monastery in the U.S. Wimmer famously said, “It’ll be forward, always forward, everywhere forward.”
Dierks embraces the phrase. After the split between the National Pork Board and NPPC, it was tough, but he knew the organization would be successful.
“We thought about the condition we wanted to achieve,” he says. “The whole thing was based on becoming the advocate—the warrior—for producers and the pork industry, particularly in Washington, D.C., but also globally. It’s been a building process, but we’ve gotten to that point. That doesn’t mean NPPC will win every issue—we’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before,” he jokes, “But there’s no doubt staff members will be giving their best efforts.
“If you look at the producer leadership and the well-connected staff we have on board, there are some things we don’t talk about that I know we make happen,” Dierks adds. “We let other people take credit sometimes, because what’s important is that it gets done.”
A paperweight among the pig collectibles in Dierks’ office says it in another way: “Diplomacy: The art of letting someone have it your way.”
It’s the producers’ organization
Dierks stresses NPPC belongs to producers, but he’s passionate about its success and the success of its members.
“I have no right to ownership in NPPC, but I care about it deeply and personally. My desire was to build the organization to a position that we could play the defender. That also means we can be the aggressor to get things done if we need to; other times we have to stand up and be counted, and we’ll do that.”
“Neil defends NPPC and the people who belong to the organization—producers, allied industry and others—to everyone and challenges all to make the organization and industry better,” says Determan, who served as president of NPPC the first year after the split. “While he is pragmatic, he is great at theoretical discussions and is a great observer of people,” she says. “He’s tough when the industry needs to be defended or explained, but considerate of all who serve or work with him.”
Optimism about the future
Dierks admits he’s a bit of a contrarian: “I’m always the most optimistic when things are really down, because I know they can only go up. And I’m the most apprehensive when things are going really well, because I know that at some juncture it’ll turn. That’s just the nature of who I am.”
When he starts a presentation, Dierks reminds his audience he really is optimistic about the future, despite what they’re going to hear. He wants them to focus on the challenges they can impact, because overcoming them will improve their ability to raise pigs.
He will tell you he’s unbelievably blessed by the people with whom he’s had the opportunity to work. He’s proud of the staff members who’ve moved into leadership positions in the industry, and says mentoring is a joy of the job. He’s also proud to be considered an extended family member by producers throughout the country, who invite him to their weddings and their children’s weddings.
“It’s a life lived: I’ve always hoped to do good work and make a contribution,” he says. “I’ve been able to see almost a magical period of time. It’s had its rough edges, but it’s been filled with opportunity and challenge, for me and for the industry.”
“Neil has a better grasp of history, economics and the pork industry than anyone else I know,” says Dermot Hayes with Iowa State University (see the cover story on Hayes in the Jan.-Feb. issue of PORK). “He is also a great guy.”
“There is no doubt in my mind, NPPC would not have succeeded without the steady and dedicated hand of Neil as its CEO,” Determan says.
Dierks has had the opportunity to at least observe many changes, but he says, “most of the time it’s like the speeding locomotive you try to get in front of and stop. I just try to catch on and take a ride. In the end, it’s all about supplying a high quality, good value, safe product to the consumer,” he says.
Servant leadership is a belief system that is widely embraced by some of the most successful organizations in the world. The NPPC can join that category, largely due to the quiet, dedicated, behind-the-scenes leadership of Neil Dierks. Turns out he’s much more than a brown suit kind of guy.