In a Year of Changes, Pork Month Focuses on a Constant
By Tina Hinz
CLIVE, Iowa (September 30, 2020) – Iowa remains the country’s top pork-producing state, even as 2020 has doled out a constant barrage of changes. One of the most constant elements is the economic activity in Iowa’s rural counties that is spurred by pig production.
In recognition of October Pork Month, the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) dug a little deeper to see how one rural county has benefitted from pig production. It’s a story of local leaders, businesses and pig farmers working together to create job opportunities and community improvements supported by those in the pork industry.
Jobs spur economic growth
A family-owned truck stop. New housing. Fresh entertainment options.
Several development projects over the past few years in Audubon County are not only providing jobs, but they’re serving as recruitment tools to lure new residents to one of the least-populous counties in the state.
Much of the major building and revitalization is thanks, in part, to area pig farmers.
Audubon County’s pork industry provides an estimated 520 full- and part-time jobs, per an analysis by Decision Innovation Solutions (DIS), an Iowa economic research firm. The DIS study was commissioned by the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) and released in early September.
For a predominantly rural area, “that’s major employment,” said Sara Slater of Audubon County Economic Development (ACED). In 2019, U.S. Census Bureau data placed Audubon as Iowa’s third-least populous county with an estimated population of about 5,500.
“Having that type of work force locally-that’s housing, that’s tax dollars, that’s supporting of businesses and schools,” Slater said.
AMVC, the nation’s 10th largest pork producer, is headquartered in Audubon and has a swine management presence in 10 states. The company employs 350 people in Iowa, from on-farm staff to internal management to veterinary and swine nutrition employees. It works with a network of contract growers.
Contract growing—raising pigs for another farmer or company like AMVC-can be a viable option for beginning farmers who don’t have the capital to weather a downturn in the markets, swine disease issues, or other risks.
Beyond that, becoming a contract grower creates an extra source of revenue that’s allowed some Audubon families to continue generational farms during years of low margins, said Troy Wessel of Audubon, president and chief executive officer of the Audubon branch of Crawford County Trust & Savings Bank. In addition, those farmers have access to swine manure and that can offset fertilizer costs.
“Those are things you just can’t put a dollar figure on,” he said. The efficiency of a contract growing system “allowed them maybe to grow their other farming entities because they had the pork influence.”
What is measurable, though, are the impacts of pork jobs on the county as a whole. In Audubon County, jobs tied to the pork industry generated $16.2 million in household income, the DIS report found.
Generally in Audubon County, people who work in the pork industry live in dual-income households and have families, Wessel said. That cycle keeps school chairs filled-supporting the school system-and likely means a stronger retail climate, he noted.
“We’ve been able to keep some of those amenities that maybe would have otherwise struggled,” Wessel said. For example, “to have a grocery store in some of these smaller, rural communities is a really, really big deal.”
Pig farmers personally grow other businesses
Longtime Audubon-area pig farmers Lawrence “Waspy” Handlos and his wife, Doris, want to see their community thrive. They employ a number of people through their family hog operation Handlos Family Farms, plus others who provide custom feed-to-finish services to the farm operation.
But their business sway didn’t stop at the farm gate.
In 2018, they added several more non-farm jobs when they opened Waspy’s Truck Stop, a multimillion dollar investment that sits on 16 acres along Highway 71, on the southern edge of the city of Audubon. Waspy’s also has a much smaller location in nearby Templeton, in Carroll County. Both sites were built utilizing as many local contractors as possible.
Waspy’s 16-acre Audubon campus offers a range of businesses that urban and suburban Iowans take for granted, but are vital to rural areas: a convenience store, fuel, a car wash, an RV station, and The Feed Mill Restaurant. Then, there are services especially important for truckers: a certified scale, truck and trailer parking, a trucker lounge, two showers, and a laundry facility. Waspy’s Truck Service Center will soon fully open with four truck wash bays, as well as tire and diesel repair.
Also on the campus is the 36-room Blue Grass Inn & Suites which features an indoor swimming pool, exercise facility, and banquet room. Not only do area residents have access, the facilities often accommodate corporate visitors and meetings.
“We always get questions like, ‘Why didn’t you build down by the interstate?'” said the Handloses’ daughter, Beth Handlos Wahlert, chief operating officer of Waspy’s. “My folks decided to build here” to draw people further into the county, as Interstate 80 borders the southern county line.
Between the farm and truck stop campus, the Handloses employ about 120 people, and still have positions to fill.
Employees are devoted community members
AMVC, the multi-state pig businesses headquartered in Audubon, frequently contributes to or helps coordinate efforts for various community initiatives, and its employees tend to be just as passionate about enhancing where they live.
“Sometimes it takes dollars to be invested back into the community; other times, it’s time,” said Alicia Humphrey, AMVC’s public relations coordinator.
Those “people resources” are valuable, said Wessel, the bank president.
“That’s the most impressive thing about how AMVC is managed-and I say that in a very good way,” Wessel said. “They continue to attract high-quality people who have an interest in the community and making things better. That takes a lot of energy and persistence to have a model that gets that buy-in.”
Along with numerous community volunteers and sponsors, AMVC employees serve on economic development boards and committees that, along with AMVC’s financial support, helped drive the following projects to improve the livability of their community:
- Renovation of The Rose, a deteriorated turn-of-the-century movie theater in downtown Audubon. With a volunteer staff, The Rose reopened for regular showtimes in June 2018.
- Replacement of a run-down mobile home park with the Audubon Recreation Center in Audubon, a more than $2 million facility that offers basketball and racquetball courts, a batting cage, a walking track, an eight-lane bowling alley, an arcade, a restaurant, and a community room that’s available for events and meetings. The building, in the works for more than a decade, was completed in late 2018.
- Opening of The Children’s Nest, the only licensed child care center serving Audubon County and surrounding areas. The center opened in 2015 and is housed in a wing of the Friendship Home long-term care facility in Audubon. Children ages 4 weeks through preschool have opportunities for daily interactions with senior residents, through art, movement, music, and games.
In addition, AMVC’s nonprofit organization, AMVC Cares, was established to improve quality of life locally and around the region. In 2008, AMVC Cares purchased a salvage yard in the unincorporated town of Hamlin, at the intersection of Highways 71 and 44 in the center of Audubon County. With donations from area businesses and other sources, debris was removed and the space was transformed into a park that features trees, a shelter and a grassy area. The park is along the T-Bone Recreational Trail that begins in the city of Audubon and runs south into Cass County.
Another AMVC Cares project involved cleanup of an old swine farrowing/finishing facility that was no longer being used in northeast Audubon County. Buildings and concrete were removed and the lagoon was closed, allowing the site to become usable farm ground. A neighboring landlord purchased the land.
“AMVC partners are very community-focused, especially in Audubon where the roots of the company are,” Humphrey said.
Educational opportunities offered
Educating workers and future workers can play an important role in sustainable economic development.
AMVC partnered with Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to launch the Swine Medicine Education Center (SMEC) in 2010. SMEC provides veterinary students and practicing veterinarians with hands-on experiences and education in swine health production.
“Some universities don’t have updated barns and facilities, so the veterinarians haven’t been exposed to the size and scale of what modern farms are today,” AMVC’s Humphrey said. “Students will come out to our sow farms and grow-finish barns and learn about swine health. They can see things, touch things, ask questions, and get real hands-on experience.”
The program continues to grow and broaden its impact. Highlights include training 651 fourth-year veterinary medicine students from 31 universities; 127 international veterinarians and pig production executives from 35 countries; 15 domestic veterinarians; and 79 swine stakeholders.
AMVC also works within the local education system. Humphrey often speaks to high school students about the swine industry and career opportunities and does virtual tours of a sow farm that allow students exposure to pig farming without leaving the classroom.
“Many have never seen the inside of a sow farm,” Humphrey said. “They drive up and down the road and see the different barns, but don’t know what happens inside. Hearing students say afterward, ‘Hey, I might be interested in working in a pig barn someday,’ is awesome, especially since there are fewer kids growing up on farms.”
Educating those who aren’t necessarily interested in pursuing a pork-related career is also beneficial, as they can become proponents for the industry. AMVC participates with the Launch Kids Club summer program for elementary-age kids in and around Audubon County. Launch is designed to teach persistence and hard work, plus gives kids experiences with what’s going on around the county and state. AMVC leads pork-themed sessions to teach kids how pork fits into a healthy diet or where pork comes from. They also get to see and touch live piglets.
During October Pork Month, AMVC supplies pork and employees to grill it at the concession stand during an Audubon High School football game. Profits benefit the school, plus players’ parents who typically work at the stand can take a break to watch the game.
‘Something to come back to’
An improved job market, new amenities, and an uptick in business activity can help lure people back to their hometowns-or keep them from moving away in the first place, pig farmer Lawrence Handlos said.
The five incorporated communities that make up Audubon County are not unlike many small towns in Iowa that have struggled to gain traction and grow. The county’s overall population peaked in the early 1900s, at 13,626 people, and has steadily declined since then. From 1980 to 2015, its population dropped 32.6%, making it Iowa’s third-fastest declining county at the time, per the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lawrence Handlos hopes attractions such as the truck stop will drive more residents to the county, like his daughter, who returned to Audubon from Ames three years ago to oversee Waspy’s.
“It’s a slow process,” he said, “getting people to move back to a community after they’ve left. They need something to come back to.”
To download full image, right-click and choose “save image as”
More about the 2020 Iowa Pork Industry Report: https://www.iowapork.org/iowa-pork-industry-a-critical-player-in-states-economy/
The full study: https://www.iowapork.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/200615-2020_Iowa-Pork-Industry-Report_State_FINAL.pdf
Read more about Audubon County at https://www.iowapork.org/auduboncounty/
More information about Decision Innovation Solutions: http://www.decision-innovation.com/