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Sales Overseas Boost US Pork, Helping Defray 2020’s Challenges

Despite trade and pandemic disruptions, 2020 pork exports are on pace to far exceed last year.
Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media file photo
Despite trade and pandemic disruptions, 2020 pork exports are on pace to far exceed last year.

Pork producers in the Midwest had great hope for 2020, in part because China was still rebuilding its swine herd after a devastating African swine fever outbreak. Still, the Sino-American trade war had barely cooled as the Phase 1 deal was signed early in the year, suggesting over-reliance on China could backfire.


“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” said Ted McKinney, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. “If we can sell an extra container of pork somewhere, that’s an extra container of pork that came from somebody’s farm or ranch and that’s what we want to do.”


McKinney says some trade bailout money went into developing new markets. He sees promise in a pending trade deal with Kenya and says other African and Southeast Asian countries are also on his radar.


He spoke during the “How pork exports can save your bacon” webinar sponsored by Agri-Pulse, an agricultural media service. 


“This is a challenging time. It’s a challenging time to be a farmer and I can’t sugar-coat that,” said Jan Archer of Archer Farms in North Carolina. “We are so grateful for our international markets.” 


Those markets can add more than $7 per head to the total price a farmer gets for a pig, said Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. That’s because they complement the domestic consumers’ needs. 


“We like the middle parts of the animal, the loin, tenderloin, the rib and the belly,” Hayes said, “and are not big consumers of picnics or butts or hams.” 

Most of the pork exported from the United States comes from parts of the pig that domestic consumers don't want.
Credit courtesy / US Meat Export Federation
US Meat Export Federation
Most of the pork exported from the United States comes from parts of the pig that domestic consumers don't want.


He says consumers overseas value those cuts along with the feet, ears, tongues, and offal. 


“We need those export markets to eat the pieces that we’re not as interested in and in so doing, they reduce the break-even price of producing the loin, the rib and the belly for the American consumer,” he said.


In other words, the price of bacon here is kept lower by the demand for other parts of the pig in other places. 


The pig herd in the U.S. is slightly bigger than this time last year, though a little smaller on August 1 than it was on June 1, according to the most recent USDAHogs and Pigs report. That’s likely the result of disruptions in the industry in the spring as the pandemic spread. Farmers had been planning for a bigger year and then some had to divert pigs from the market when packing plants temporarily closed, while others may have slowed their breeding plans. 


“Our exports this fall will continue to be strong. They were extremely strong last fall and I think we’ll meet that level and end up year-over-year about where we are now, at 70-80 percent increase in exports,” Hayes said. “Remember the headwinds we faced. Think how amazing that is, given what happened this year.”


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Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.