Wisps of smoke but few fires at the 2016 World Pork Expo

Like the fragrant BBQ smoke that drifts across and through the Iowa State Fairgrounds every year at this time, some theme or set of themes always seems to set an underlying tone to the World Pork Expo.

Sometimes it seems thrust into your face and impossible to not recognize. That was the case when Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) broke a few years ago and dominated everything down here in Des Moines, Iowa. A disease storm that kills millions of piglets and seems impossible to control quite easily takes over everyone’s attention when it occurs.

Other diseases, like circovirus and PRRS, have also dominated the World Pork Expo (WPX) in the years of their break. (In 2001 the WPX was cancelled when Foot and Mouth Disease broke in Europe.) At other times it has been trade disputes or trade problems occupying the central ground of hog industry discussions. Some years it has been profitability, with years of high or devastatingly low profitability setting the tone for everything else.

I always spend some time trying to identify the issue that gives each iteration of the event its soul, and this year that was a challenging task. The hog industry is doing well, with farmers making money and steady growth and investment making the rest of the players happy and confident. New packing plants are coming, farmers are building new barns, and there seems to be good demand growing out into the future. But it’s not the kind of massively profitable situation that blocks out all other matters. It was just a pleasantly positive tone or mood.

(To get an hour-by-hour, session-by-session stream of what I saw and thought, check out my Twitter feed of the past few days. My handle is @EdWhiteMarkets.)

There’s a tone of frustration from most of the industry represented by the National Pork Producers Council about the seeming futility of trying to get the Trans Pacific Partnership passed by the U.S. Congress, and barely bridled outrage over how both Republican and Democratic presidential contenders have been dallying with anti-trade sentiments. To most in the export-oriented U.S. pork industry, TPP is a fabulous opportunity to boost production and business. But approval or disapproval is out of their hands. No one’s really listening to what hog farmers are saying about this. Anti-trade sentiments run throughout America’s still-struggling economy, so the views of a few thousand farmers don’t account for much, so that leaves them to be spectators and bystanders to an issue that has vital relevance for them. It was an odd situation yesterday (Thursday) at lunch to be among a crowd of super-pro-TPP farmers and industry people, listening to U.S. agricultural trade negotiator, Darci Vetter, probably the world’s most convincing advocate for the deal, giving another impassioned pitch for the importance of TPP for the U.S., and realizing it really didn’t matter what anybody here thought. This issue is being decided elsewhere entirely. That added a tone of frustration and annoyance to WPX.

There is a major expansion in the hog packing business, which always pleases farmers, who spend their lives fearing that “shackle space” will become a profitability-derailing train wreck, as it has in the past. Farmers are building new barns too, responding to good profits in recent years after the 2012 grain market rally dissipated and allowed room for high meat prices and low grain prices. That’s the spread upon which hog fortunes or bankruptcies are based. The tone around the sprawling WPX trade show was optimistic and lots of business was getting done in the aisles and tents.

There was both optimism and anxiety around the issue of foreign markets, which are becoming more and more important for the U.S. industry (making it feel more like the Canadian industry than it has in the past), as the combination of new opportunities and threats of new disruptions blended. A happy development has been the reemergence of China as a major buyer of U.S. pork, allowing large amounts to be shipped offshore to a market that had completely disappeared until recently. A hopeful tone was struck by observations about how much pork China might import in coming years, while fear was injected by the danger of something provoking the Chinese government to shut the door and send markets into chaos. The tensions in the South China Sea are very much a hog market issue now.

I was most surprised by how little PEDv was discussed. Down in Iowa, it seems to be yesterday’s issue. It’s not that it’s gone, because it isn’t, but the U.S. industry now knows how to handle it and it’s just become part of the day to day business of the industry. The reappearance of the disease in Manitoba, following the relaxing of Canadian Food Inspection Agency truck-washing rules, popped up a few times when I was chatting with people and they realized I was Canadian. But for the U.S. industry, it’s not a crisis any longer and has become, it seems, just a management issue.

The newsiest issue is the January 2017 banning of many “medically important” antibiotics from being used in U.S. hogs for growth promotion, or in an uncontrolled way. Growth promotion use for drugs important for human disease control will disappear and veterinarians will be required to play a far larger role in approving and allowing farmers to use antibiotics in feed. Multiple sessions on what the new rules mean were packed by producers and feed formulators throughout Wednesday and Thursday. Feed providers or farmers who supply or use medicated feed contrary to the rules face some serious consequences if caught, but many farmers and small feed providers still probably don’t understand all the new wrinkles in the incoming regulations, so there was a mood of concern about what’s going to happen in the first months after a ban comes into effect. However, it didn’t seem like an issue that informed people in the industry believe will become critical or truly disruptive, just another management issue that could cause some glitches next winter and spring.

That sums up the various moods and tones I could find at this year’s WPX, with no single issue dominating the show and no clear mood of despair or euphoria ruling attendees’ spirits. Farmers and the industry seem optimistic, hopeful, concerned and relaxed. Perhaps the last is the true underlying mood this year: relaxed. It’s a generally positive outlook, with a handful of issues that everyone is trying to keep atop of. It’s not a dramatic or exciting situation, but a tone of relaxed confidence is a lot better than the tone of many years in the past, so like with the thin, rich smoke drifting across the fairgrounds all this week, perhaps we need to just relax as well and breath in a moment in time when thing seem quite pleasant.

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