This story is a condensed version from Connect Business Magazine.
He lifts a fifty pound bag of dog food from one wooden pallet and slides it over to another. He wears a flannel shirt and jeans, and his blond hair is slightly tousled. Here at Equity Supply in Mankato he seems just like any other worker as he unloads semis, helps customers and fills orders. But like so many other influential people here in southern MN, appearances can be deceiving.
Besides co-owning Equity Supply, North Mankato’s Karl Johnson also raises hogs – and lots of them: this year 20,000 and next year about 35,000. Hogs are the means through which he’s earned a national reputation. He’s also worked on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and GATT, testified before Congress, been interviewed by most major news organizations, and currently he sits on a special task force for Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. And all because of hogs.
You could say he “brings home the bacon” for the region’s hog producers.
South-central Minnesota ranks as one of the top hog producing regions in the country. The region’s economy runs off the wealth hog producers create: one study of south-central MN shows hog producers make nearly all their business purchases within 25 miles of their farm. They buy their hog equipment, building supplies, feed, veterinary services, clothing, automobiles – all within 25 miles. That creates wealth for everyone. Contrast this to some business owners who buy almost all their supplies from outside the region.
Karl Johnson is in full command of his facts and can communicate those facts well. He leans back in his chair and makes you feel good about hogs. For once he has the chance to tell you pork’s story from pork’s perspective. And he seems to enjoy that.
CONNECT: When you were president of the National Pork Producers Council, how do you feel you were treated by the media, by politicians and by special interest groups?
Johnson: It’s a mixed reaction, quite frankly, but by-and-large rather well. I wouldn’t say that we had tremendous problems. Obviously I’ve testified before Congress several times and was usually well-received. I worked very hard on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the GATT agreement. In Washington I was by-and-large rather well-received. We would go in with Congressmen who were concerned about what was happening in their area and we talked about the pork industry – I’ve had that (experience). We go through some negatives, there’s no question about that. There’s some tough interviews.
I was interviewed by the ABC news program probably three years ago now; talking about the swine industry and how it relates to the world. Anyway, I remember we did an hour and a-half interview like this, with TV, so they’re doing the whole thing, and I was in a chair and an office for an hour and a-half. I was put through the wringer, if you will. And I thought I must have done fairly well because they only used ten seconds of it. (laughter) So sometimes you’re beat up a little bit. Mostly we’ve found that, or I’ve found, that interviewers from the Washington Post to the L.A. Times, to the Wall Street Journal, once they’ve started visiting with you and found out some of the facts – at first they were on a mission – but when they found out the facts they would back off. We were treated, I think, fairly decently.
I think, now in the last couple of years, some things have come about where that is not quite as true. I think that we are being viewed as corporate agriculture, which scares everyone. We’re not. I mean, there’s still an awful lot of independent producers that are forming alliances. But it’s being perceived differently. We’ve got some groups within agriculture, there are some offshoot groups, that are fighting this consolidation, if you will, of agriculture. They’re getting some tough times. Sometimes, I think, as well, that in the press it’s not a story unless it’s a negative story. Sometimes that happens. A good friend of mine is a reporter with the Minneapolis Tribune and I know that he has that same opinion – he will agree with me on that. It doesn’t sell papers if you don’t make it a bit interesting.
CONNECT: How has pork producing changed over the last twenty years?
Johnson: Well, I’ve been raising hogs since 1969. There is no comparison to what we did in 1969 to what we are doing today. Totally different. And what’s happened in the last four or five years has dramatically changed the industry, how it’s structured – the efficiencies of many, many different techniques. Multi-site has changed tremendously; it has allowed us to raise large quantities of animals with very little disease. We don’t need to use the artificial antibiotics that we used in – artificial is a bad word, but I mean the supplemented antibiotics – that we used in feed grain and injectable, and both. And we know how to house them. I’ve got barns that are controlled so automatically by a computer system that basically, in the winter, it can control the amount of heat coming in and we can keep that barn within two degrees fluctuation. And so you eliminate all kinds of problems. Genetics, nutrition, and other technologies have just improved tremendously. It’s a whole ‘nother world. And it’s an exciting world. And that has led to, what we are seeing is some consolidation, and the part of that is everybody knows that the average age of farmers, in general, is in the high ’50s. So we’ve got a lot of farmers who don’t want to retool. They don’t see the potential for it. Probably their land is paid for. That’s why you don’t see a lot of new buildings going up.
In Minnesota, for instance, the number of pigs has just about stayed even. We’ve grown, in the nation, we’re the third largest pork state in the nation right now. I’ve made this statement before while working with U.S. foreign trade, that we should produce about another ten million head of hogs because the market is there for it. If we don’t fill that void, somebody else will – Brazil, Eastern Europe, somebody is going to fill that void. We are in an ideal situation to produce livestock here because we’ve got the grain; that is if we don’t change the grain into some kind of meat, milk, eggs – it has to be shipped to barges that go down the Mississippi and then on to the end of the chain. Another thing is, in our area, the Midwest, the nutrient management system is really ecologically friendly. In other words, you grow the corn, you produce the pork, beef, whatever. You put the manure back on the ground. You produce more corn. It’s a tough concept to sell, but it’s very environmentally sound. And it makes a lot more sense than importing other fertilizers from Texas or Canada or wherever they come from.
CONNECT: What do you think of environmental laws, and do you favor individual communities to be allowed to enforce their own environmental laws?
Johnson: I think there has to be environmental laws. State guidelines, federal guidelines, are totally necessary – we need them. I think that counties should have the right for sitings, saying ‘Okay, but you can’t build it within a half-mile of a residence.’ That all makes good sense. Where I do have a problem is when you get down to township levels because it, well, when it’s local control it becomes too much of a personality battle. And if they don’t have the expertise or the money to hire the expertise, to say ‘this is good, this is bad.’ I think County control is fine. But I would hope that it would be standardized. I don’t have any problem with County Y and County X saying ‘you can’t site right here.’ But if they have completely different rules, it puts one county or one group, the producers, at a complete disadvantage to another.
For instance, with Blue Earth County, the tightening of their regulations, which I think are some of the strictest in the country, has forced many, many small producers out of business. I think the intent of that was to try and say ‘Okay, well these big guys are going to hurt the world, so we’re going to try to protect our little ones.’ They don’t say that but I think that’s some of the philosophy behind it. And it has had exactly the reverse effect because the small producer cannot afford to go through the environmental studies, etc., that you need to do. And the other thing is, new facilities are pretty environmentally sound. They are designed, they have to be engineered by a certified engineer, and then built and inspected and so forth. We need regulation. I’m not trying to say that we don’t. Thirty, forty years ago there were things being done to the environment that hurt. It’s more than fair. But I think we need some coordination so that it (regulations between counties) stays the same, realizing different soil types will demand different things, etc. There has to be some standardization.
CONNECT: Anything else you’d like to say?
Johnson: I think the one thing you have to say is the tremendous efforts and time and money we’re spending on trying to work on this odor problem. I mean, we will admit we have an odor problem. We think we’ve improved it tremendously. The other thing, the idea is that big farms smell more. That’s not true. They probably smell less. It becomes a mind thing. We know that we have to attack it and we’re spending (money) – we have a check-off in place, you take your pig to market and there’s a check-off, forty-five cents for every hundred dollars for this. We’re spending literally millions of dollars at universities and private industries to come up with something. And I would assume, quite frankly, that probably will be licked by the year 2000. There are additives that are going into the feed – the yucca plant is going in there to a lot of feed and that reduces the odor. And we’ve become much more sensitive to it. And once that problem is licked we’ll be open for expansion. I think we’re viewed as an environmental hazard now because of the waste that is going out into the water and streams, particularly. That is what is said. But if we didn’t have the odor, we wouldn’t have a problem.
Occupation: Co-owner of Equity Supply in Mankato. Pork producer, rural North Mankato (currently produces 20,000 market hogs).
Born: December 24, 1945.
Education: Mankato High School Class of ’63. Attended Mankato State University.
National Experience: Past President, National Pork Producers Council (1994). Current Chairman, National Pork Producers Council Foreign Trade Committee. Officer, U.S. Meat Export Federation. Member, Special Task Force, for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, on concentration of U.S. packing industry.
Regional and Local Experience: Past President, MN Pork Producers Association (’84-’85). Former Chairman, Mankato Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee. Former Member, South Central Technical College Foundation. Chairman of the Board, Frost-BENCO-Wells Electric. Community Board Member, Norwest Bank, Mankato.
©1997 Connect Business Magazine