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TriOak Foods Holds Strong
Southeast Iowa is a progressive, hog-dense area of the U.S., with three of the top 40 pork producers in the country operating in the region. In tiny Oakville, 5 miles from the Mississippi river and population around 100, TriOak Foods is the only game in town. The great flood of June 2008 pretty much wiped out the town after levees on the Iowa River blew. Most of the residents of Oakville packed up and moved out for good, but TriOak Foods stayed. With 66,000 sows and a large feed milling business, the company is the 17th largest pork producer in the U.S.
I sat down with the CEO of TriOak, Randy Pflum (pronounced Flum), shown above, and COO, Jeff Worstell, to discuss the state of the industry.
SF: You have some experience with flooding.
RP: I feel for the farmers dealing with the Missouri River floods this year. Flood cleanup is horrendous. In 2008, when Oakville flooded, we had to move our offices to Burlington for a year. We couldn’t make feed for months. There were two dozen feed mills in the area that helped us. It would be tougher to deal with that situation today because we are a bigger company now. Oakville has never really recovered. The government came in and tried to help people and it made it worse because many residents left town.
SF: What are your biggest challenges today?
JW: A big challenge is the shortage of CDL (commercial) drivers. Labor issues are getting more difficult in many of our locations.
Another challenge is PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome). The season for PRRS used to be November to March. Now it is practically all year.
SF: What are you seeing in production?
JW: Sow production the last three years is amazing, the slope of the line. It used to be you dreamed of 30 pigs per sow per year, and now if you don’t hit that on a farm you wonder what you are doing wrong. Genetics has been a big driver. Born alive is 14 to 15 pigs now. When you start with a big number you have a better chance of ending up with more pigs. Our wean age is up and we are beginning to benefit. It’s a lot easier for people on the receiving end to deal with a 24-day pig than a 16-day one.
SF: Are you going to expand?
RP: If you aren’t growing you are shrinking. We haven’t added a newly constructed sow farm since 2012, but we have acquired farms. We will grow primarily by purchasing farms. We have to be better, not just bigger. It feels like the country doesn’t need more sows. TriOak is in five states now. We think of ourselves as a family company, but we have to function in that larger business aspect. It’s harder to grow. It’s a struggle to function as the large company you are and still maintain the culture you grew up with. We are not vertically integrated and that is a concern. The industry has consolidated and integrated slower than we expected the past 20 years, but I think the pace will be accelerating.
SF: Do you have a plan to deal with African swine fever?
JW: Yes, we have a plan. It focuses on how we respond if it were to arrive here in the U.S. It encompasses multiple facets like how will we handle no movement of hogs or pigs within our system for multiple days. If the U.S. gets ASF, the industry will temporarily implode. We would have no good outlet for all the meat that we export getting pulled through the domestic channels. ASF is a scary thing for the industry.
SF: Any thoughts on the trade war?
JW: It’s frustrating how reliant the U.S. pork industry has become on China. Last August, when ASF was reported over there, we asked ourselves if we could break all ties to China. That lasted about two hours until we realized our needles, syringes, B vitamins, and more came from there and other viable options did not exist. China has not been a good trading partner and we support that situation getting fixed. But the tariffs are a big problem that get in the way of one of the safest, most economical and sustainable protein sources in the world being available to the Chinese people. We watch as Brazil is getting pork, beef, and poultry plants approved to export to China. We’re just a pawn in that game.
History of TriOak on Pork Powerhouses® Ranking
1998: 16,000 sows (listed as Oakville Feed & Grain)
1999: 18,000 sows (changed name to TriOak Foods)
2004: 22,000 sows (joined Triumph Foods)
2007: 35,000 sows (sold Triumph Foods shares to Christensen Farms)
2013: 54,000 sows (bought sows from Ag Feed)
2015: 61,000 sows (acquired Hintzsche Pork)
2019: 66,000 sows