Barely 24 hours after returning from a whirlwind trip to Japan and China, newly elected National Pork Board President Terry O’Neel was busy with his crew weaning 500 pigs at the family operation near Friend, Neb.
“It’s going to be a crazy year,” O’Neel noted. “Just a week before we left on this trip our daughter got married and I don’t think there’s going to be much of a break.”
O’Neel and his wife, Diane, own and operate O’Neel Farms. He assumed his presidential post at the organization’s June board meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. The board’s 15 farmer-directors represent 60,000 pig farmers across the country. It’s the culmination of a 31-year rise through the ranks of local, state and national pork groups.
“I joined Saline County Pork Producers in 1986. There have been many changes in the industry since that time,” said O’Neel. “Thirty years later I’m talking at the U.S.-China Swine Industry Symposium to roughly 150 producers, compared to the 200 some that would come to our banquets back in Saline County,” noting the swine industry consolidation has been on not only the state and national, but international level as well.
His first overseas trip as president included a stop in Japan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of opening a U.S. Meat Export Federation office in Tokyo.
National Pork Board President, Terry O’Neel and his wife Diane take part in a store promotion with Smithfield meat from a processing plant in Zhengzhou, China.
Then they were off to China for stops in four cities where they met with swine producers and industry officials.
Although it will be a busy year, O’Neel said, “It’s very rewarding to talk to producers about the issues and problems they are facing and trying to help them solve them.”
Many challenges are facing the nation’s pork producers, but according to O’Neel the biggest is selling the extra amount of pork currently flowing through the industry. “We are up 3 to 4 percent in tonnage this year and probably 4 percent next year,” he said. “Five new processing plants are coming online in the next two years that will increase our slaughter capacity by 10 percent. That is unprecedented growth in capacity in the pork industry.”
Another challenge is anything that would interrupt pork exports, O’Neel said, with most falling under the subhead of the Trump administration’s trade rhetoric on NAFTA, the Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and the now tabled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other things that could disrupt trade are policy changes, both in the United States and abroad, plus any foreign animal disease outbreak.
To that end the National Pork Board is working hard to develop a secure pork supply program with a special database. Along with the National Pork Producer’s Council, they would like to see a vaccine program as part of the next Farm Bill to handle an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
“Pork quality is also a challenge. We have packaging and labeling issues, basically specifications for exports that packers have that differentiate our product from our competitors,” O’Neel said. “We are also working on introducing quality grading of pork loins. This is still in a comment period with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the perceived grades would be USDA prime, choice and select,” which O’Neel stressed would be on loins only. “This is to help consumers get a consistent eating experience.”
Dove-tailing into the quality issue is a problem with U.S. consumers over-cooking pork, noted O’Neel. “We are working hard to emphasize pork needs to be heated only to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. At this temperature pork retains moisture and flavor and properly cooked meat will help sell more pork domestically.”
O’Neel noted his personal goals for the industry line up with the national organization. “We are going to a more business-to-business model. Instead of blanket advertising a commodity we are working directly with businesses to help them identify ways to market pork more effectively. It’s too expensive anymore to blast consumers with ads. Instead we want to be a catalyst to help retailers improve their bottom line and move our product.”
This coming year the Pork Board also will concentrate on what O’Neel dubbed the three M’s – Millennial, Mobile apps and Multicultural. The national organization will place more focus on social media and sharing information for the millennial age group through mobile phone apps, as well as targeting different ethnic groups, especially Hispanics.
“We must also have increased engagement in the export market,” the national president said. “We know the only way we can move this extra pork is through exports because the domestic market is pretty flat.”
While those are the main issues and goals, O’Neel said there are always more looming in the background. One of the constants is pressure from activist groups. “We always have to monitor those and we want to focus on sustainability issues and social responsibility.”
The organization is also working to disseminate information more effectively.
There were nearly 20 ways pork producers could search for information on the Internet and O’Neel said they are working to consolidate all those links into one website.
“Hopefully state organizations will push that with their producers. There has been a disconnect between local and state groups with the national organization and we hope this effort will improve communications and result in more engagement. Next month will be our annual Oktoberfest and all the state executive directors will come into Des Moines. We hope that will help spread the word,” he said.
A 1980 graduate of Friend High School, O’Neel earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1984.
While there he was a member of Alpha Zeta and Block & Bridle.
The O’Neels have been married 33 years and are the parents of two children.
Diane has worked for USDA’s Farm Service Agency for 34 years and is bookkeeper for the farm accounts.
Their daughter Danielle Pendlton works as an assistant manager in human resources for Smithfield Foods at Crete. Her husband, Sam, is in ag equipment sales. Son Ethan is feed mill manager for O’Neel Farms and handles the 700 acres of corn and soybeans. His wife, Kayla, starts working at O’Neel Farms this month.
Five employees, including Kayla, help run the farrow-to-finish operation that features 500 sows and markets 10,000 to 12,000 pigs annually.
O’Neel notes they are fortunate to have Dustin and Jessica Payne, among those employees for three years. “They are raising a family here and that’s working well for us.”
O’Neel kicks off presidency with trade mission to Asia