2021: Mike Patterson
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Mike Patterson of Kenyon, Minnesota, as this year’s Pork Promoter of the Year Award recipient.
In a year filled with unknowns, perhaps no one was as surprised as Mike Patterson for what the year 2020 had in store. He quickly became seen as the spokesperson for the Minnesota pork industry, and the United States pork industry as a whole, thus earning himself the Minnesota Pork Promoter of the Year Award.
Born and raised in central Minnesota, Patterson’s agriculture background began in dairy farming. As his parent’s farm evolved, farrow to finish pigs were added to the mix in the late 1970’s, and the operation has since grown to now include nearly 7,000 sows. Disease challenges in the 1990’s, along with a changing industry, propelled the family to pivot their business to become a more viable operation long-term.
As instrumental leaders in creating the Minnesota Family Farms Sow Cooperative, Patterson immersed himself in the co-op at 18 years old, being one of the first to become a shareholder. While attending college, he purchased his first barn. Several years later he expanded with a second barn along with purchasing more shares in the co-op. He now holds a seat on the Board of Directors for Minnesota Family Farms.
Following his father’s retirement, Patterson and his sister inherited their parent’s 3,000-head finishing barn. Today, the two siblings custom raise 2,000-head together.
A Family Affair
Together with their four daughters, Maddie, 21; Isabel, 18; Julia, 16; and Leia, 7, Mike and his wife Rebekah’s part-time work raising pigs became a family affair. Participating in daily chores from a young age and showing pigs at the fair instilled the girls’ passion for agriculture, which led them to start their own company with the help of their parents.
A strong competitive spirit courses through Patterson blood, and when blue ribbons failed to hang from the girl’s walls, they decided to take action and start their own company, Country Girls Showpigs. With help from Mike and Rebekah, the girls started their business small with a little barn housing a few pigs, and continued to expand from there, now selling nearly 200 show pigs annually.
“It’s been a great way to show them the whole process of raising pigs,” noted Patterson. “The girls are involved in every step, starting with the breeding and selection, gestation, farrowing, and raising the pigs, all the way to record-keeping and selling to other people. It’s definitely a learning experience.”
The two oldest girls are currently pursuing agriculture-related careers in the fields of communication and education.
“As the girls got older, they looked to what they were passionate about. We left all the doors open for them, but it’s neat to think they’re going to be involved in agriculture,” said Rebekah.
Promoting on the Daily
Patterson’s pride for raising pigs and putting a quality protein on people’s plates is palpable. He actively shares his excitement of pig farming with peers on social media and face-to face, communicating animal care practices and strides in sustainability efforts.
Growing up, he had a hand in pork promotion beginning in high school where he was the county ambassador and Minnesota Pork Ambassador runner-up. Serving on the county pork producers board as a volunteer and working his way up to the president allowed him many years of interacting with consumers at the county fair to talk about pigs and pork.
“Our girls exhibit pigs at the state fair, and we always love walking through the barns and striking up conversations with passerby about their favorite pork dish or answer their questions about the pigs,” Rebekah stated. “Mike will strike up a conversation about pigs anytime and anywhere. He is the man in the grocery store who admires the meat case.”
“We raise the pigs to the exact same standards every time so the product looks the same in the grocery store every day,” described Patterson. “Consumers expect their buying and eating experience to be the exact same every time. We are doing our jobs so well that they don’t even think about it.”
Consumers have never had to worry about pork not being on the grocery store shelves. Once the impacts of packing plant closures hit and grocery stores had fewer product options enforcing restrictions on how much meat consumers could buy at a time, people began to pay attention and seek out answers.
The 2020 Disruption
Patterson never anticipated the scale to which he would be sharing his passion in April of 2020 and beyond. Local newspapers reached out once word of packing plant closures due to Covid-19 cases surfaced. Reporters contacted Patterson because he was one of the first to experience the effects of plant closures. At the time, he had 3 barns full of pigs that were ready to go to market, which “was the worst spot to be in.”
Once the email indicating the plant was closing indefinitely hit his inbox, Patterson couldn’t sleep. The battle of fighting animal welfare issues ensued, forcing Patterson to find a way out of the mess.
“I got on the phone with as many butcher shops as I could get a hold of,” Patterson described. “We put together a social media post letting people know we were looking to sell pigs to local people to buy directly.”
Nonstop calls, emails, and texts resulted from the social media post after receiving more than 700 shares. Over 600 pigs were sold or donated; people stopped by to pick them up, took them to butcher shops, and Patterson, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Pork Board partnered together for ground pork donations adding up to nearly 25,000 pounds of pork for Second Harvest Heartland from Patterson’s pork alone. The only limiting factor to not selling or donating more was the lack of butcher space.
Every pig sold created an opportunity for direct farmer to consumer interaction.
“We were able to tell the story of raising pigs and the steps that go into getting that pork chop on their family’s table,” Rebekah noted. “This direct interaction provided us with an opportunity to tell the pig farming story that we had never had before.”
Today, the Patterson’s fridge is scattered with friendly notes of kindness and encouragement sent from people near and far who benefitted from the pork they received. Countless stories of parents who reached out to buy a pig because they reached their meat limits at Sams Club and Costo and weren’t sure how they would feed their children still race through the Patterson’s minds.
“People take for granted that the meat will be there,” described Patterson. “Consumers have never had to worry about this before.”
Patterson in the Press
Local stories featuring Patterson early on in the pork industry disruption led him to be a common contact as more newspapers caught wind of the situation Minnesota pig farmers found themselves in.
Featured all over the country in well over 100 articles, radio spots, television segments, and podcasts, Patterson’s story reached hundreds of millions of people, highlighted in National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, just to name a few. The NBC News story alone received traction across the country, reaching more than 50 million people alone.
Patterson described the importance of every piece involved in the process of getting pork from the farm to the fork. Farmers, packing plants, and every other piece involved in pork production have become so efficient to ensure consumers receive fresh pork in record time, so when the interruption of just one piece of the puzzle occurred, disorder followed with food supply chain disruption.
Though the situation proved to be one of the most difficult situations many farmers have ever seen, Patterson stayed positive and held true to the fact that pig farmers were still out there raising a great product for consumer’s tables.
“Mike was among the first producers during COVID to share reassuring messages on behalf of the pork industry through the national media,” stated Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board. “He tirelessly delivered heartfelt and authentic answers in response to tough questions from reporters. Our national consumer response to this issue would not have been nearly as successful without the outstanding contributions of gifted and committed producer spokespeople like Mike.”
“This year was the catalyst for me to step up – a right guy, right time situation – and I felt proud letting people have a window into what we do,” Patterson explained. “Every day, we do the right thing for our animals, our people, and our employees, to make sure consumers have a great eating experience every time.”