Listen More, Talk Less: Mike Paustian Takes On Leadership of Iowa Pork

03:50PM Jan 28, 2020
Mike Paustian
( Farm Journal's PORK )

Mike Paustian, a pig farmer from Walcott, Iowa, took over the reins as the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) president last week during the Iowa Pork Congress. I sat down with him to find out more about IPPA's new leader. From one thing you may not know about Mike to what he hopes to accomplish during his term as president, he shares his thoughts on a wide variety of topics.

Q. How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Slightly introverted science nerd.

Q. Tell us about your family and farming operation.
My wife, Amy, and I have been married 20 years. We met at Iowa State University. I grew up on an Iowa pig farm and she grew up on a pig farm in southwest Minnesota. We have three kids – Zachary, 16; Elizabeth, 13; Madeline, 10. My wife and I are the sixth-generation to farm on our family farm, Paustian Enterprises in Walcott, Iowa. We have a farrow-to-finish hog operation and grow corn and soybeans. All of the corn we grow is fed back to our hogs through our feedmill on the farm. We feel like it’s a good fit where we can feed the corn to our pigs, then take manure from our pigs to fertilize the corn. It’s a very sustainable system. 

Q. What’s one thing people may not know about you?
People may not know that I had a career off the farm before I came back and joined my family’s farm. I was doing animal disease research at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa. I received a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Minnesota after completing my undergrad at Iowa State University. Just to be clear, I consider myself a Cyclone – I can’t have people thinking I’m a Gopher!

Q. Why did you leave research to return to the farm?
Our kids are the reason we came back to the farm 10 years ago. Amy and I thought we’d retire early someday and then go back and farm. Once we had kids, however, we knew we wanted them to have the opportunity to grow up on the farm like we did. It was hard to leave the lab, I loved doing research and contributing to agriculture in that way. But, I also love being back on the farm where I can utilize my science training here to help the industry.

Q. How does that science research background impact you on the farm today? 
I’m always looking at things as experiments. How can we tweak what do to improve performance and keep pigs from getting sick? I’m very willing to try new things and try new experiments. My background has made me a very critical thinker. I want to see data and use data to make decisions. I’m not as likely to just go with my gut – I’d much rather have data to analyze and then make a decision. 

(l to r) Amy, Madeline, Mike, Elizabeth and Zachary Paustian

Q. Why did you decide to step up to this challenge?
I feel very strongly about giving back to the industry. The pork industry has allowed my family farm to prosper over the years. I want to give something back. I have a keen interest in research which led to my involvement on the research committee for the Iowa Pork Producers Association. During that time, my eyes were opened to these opportunities to serve. A few years down the road when they asked if I’d be interested, I said yes because it was a good opportunity to learn more about the industry and meet producers from all over the state.

Q. What kind of leader are people getting?
I like to collect a lot of data – listen first and talk second. I want to hear all sides of a discussion, then formulate a decision based on all the input that’s been given. 

Q. If you could only accomplish one thing this year, what would it be and why?
That’s an easy one. If you were a genie and could grant me a wish, it would be to keep African swine fever (ASF) out of the U.S. Beyond that, I’d like to see us make some progress on connecting with consumers and regulators all over the state and getting a positive message out about all the good things going on in Iowa’s pork industry. We’ve started in that direction with the rebranding of the We Care program for Iowa and hope we can start to move the needle on conversations going on throughout the state about the future of pork production.

Q. There have been a lot of pork victories lately, what stands out as the biggest one in your mind?
The progress we’ve made with our trade deals recently has been great and it’s creating a lot of optimism. It seemed like we were playing defense last year – maintaining trade deals we had. Now we’ve seen forward progress in that area, especially with Japan, Mexico and Canada, and a little bit with China. We hope there will be more progress with China since we haven’t been able to get the tariffs off yet. I would like to see us go on the offense on trade and start working on trade deals with new countries. We view Southeast Asia as a growing potential market for us, especially countries like Vietnam and the Philippines who are also struggling with ASF right now. We would love to see some new deals being hammered out with countries that have not been on the trade radar lately because we think opening up and developing new models is going to have a positive impact on the industry going forward. 

Q. Why are you optimistic about future of swine industry in Iowa?
We are blessed with tremendous natural resources, world-class experts in health and nutrition, great infrastructure, great partners at Iowa State who keep us at forefront of innovation and producers who’ve proven over the years they are willing to adapt and improve their operation. I truly feel like we have the critical mass here in Iowa to be world leaders in pork production – we can compete with anyone in the world and I don’t believe that’s changing anytime soon.

Q. What do you like to do for fun?
I love to read and enjoy playing computer games with my kids. I love to mountain bike and my kids do, too. I used to play a lot of sports and now I enjoy watching my kids play sports – soccer and basketball.

Q. How has a self-proclaimed “science nerd” become so comfortable in front of the camera?
You don't have to be the world's expert on whatever you're being asked about. You just have to be able to tell your story. You're the one who knows your story and every producer has a great story to tell. Sometimes we just don’t realize it.

Q. This is not an easy job for a busy guy – how will you fit it all in?
I feel very strongly about giving recognition to all the people back home who support those of us who show up to the meetings. Before I agreed to go down this path, I had a heart to heart with my family to make sure they were on board with this. I appreciate that they are willing to step in for me when I go out to meetings for the pork producers. I feel very comfortable that everything will be taken care of while I’m gone. I’m appreciative of our family members and employees who are willing to step up when I’m gone. They’ve all volunteered to serve the pork industry even though I’m the one showing up. 

Watch Paustian share his thoughts on the year ahead for IPPA in the video below.

More from the Iowa Pork Congress:

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Excitement in the Air at Iowa Pork Congress Despite Tough 2019

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