DES MOINES, Iowa — As he retires from the job of CEO of the National Pork Producers Council, Neil Dierks is looking forward to the next chapter.
AgriNews talked to Dierks earlier this year about his career at NPPC and in the U.S. pork industry. Along the way, AgriNews asked Dierks some questions about some of the experiences he’s had and lessons learned throughout his life and career.
Dierks said he’s ready for what comes next and already has a retirement “to-do” list.
“I told my family, my theme in retirement is going to be ‘exploration.’ I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time at home on the farm, other than arriving late on a Friday night and leaving for the office or for travel elsewhere on Sunday afternoon. I’m also looking at doing some educational kinds of things and not traditional stuff, just things that I’ve always wanted to pursue that I never really had time for, things like taking an intermediate welding course and other self-improvement kinds of things. I’m also looking forward to doing some volunteer work,” he said.
It’s tough to find a cut of pork that Dierks doesn’t like — he said he’s always on the hunt for the best pork tenderloin places in the Midwest — but if he’s at a hog roast, his tendency is to go for the face.
“The thing I always circle around and wait for is the cheek meat, which I always find to be probably just the most phenomenal part,” he said.
As a farm kid, the CEO of NPPC and longtime cheerleader for the U.S. pork industry, Dierks might be expected to have food memories centering around Sunday dinners with big pork roasts or fall harvest dinners of pork chops and apples. And he does.
But one of the most enduring memories for Dierks — and one he still prepares for his own children, now grown, involves kale. Yes, kale.
“My youngest daughter is an athletic trainer for the women’s basketball team at the University of Memphis. She brought her boyfriend home. When they got home, she said ‘Dad, can you make kale for us?’ When I grew up, kale, to me, is kind of like a vegetable stew. You take ground sausage, then you put kale off the stem, large volumes of kale, into the end of the roasting pan and then you put water in and cook it for about three, three and a half hours. My mother always used to make it when I would bring friends home. That was the test, if my friends would eat kale and then they were OK,” Dierks said.
The Job That Wasn’t
When Dierks went to work at NPPC in 1990, he was hired for a job he never actually did.
“I was originally tagged to be the next World Pork Expo manager — but I never managed an Expo. I worked for about three months and I was offered a job to assist Russ Sanders, who was the CEO at the time. I held a number of positions, vice president of research and education, finally senior vice president of programs. The split of the National Pork Board and NPPC occurred in 2002 and I was given the opportunity to be CEO of NPPC in 2002,” Dierks said.
Speaking of the World Pork Expo, Dierks said he was satisfied with the 2021 event, the first in-person World Pork Expo in two years.
“We were very, very pleased with how Expo went. Part of that went to the fact that we hadn’t done one for two years. There was all this anticipation of if we throw a party, will anybody come? As it turned out, people came to Expo and we had nothing but very positive comments,” he said.
As far as adding or adjusting different events, Dierks said organizers likely will respond to the event’s needs as time goes on and circumstances readjust.
“This year, we were concerned about executing an Expo. We will worry about the additional bells and whistles for next year,” he said.
Dierks also reflected on how the World Pork Expo, like the U.S. and global pork industry itself, has changed and adjusted to keep up with the industry it showcases.
“When Expo originally started, it was as much a consumer event as it was an industry event. In fact, it was predominantly a consumer event. In 2002, we started changing that and bringing the focus more onto the producer and the industry, the vendors, etc.,” he said.
While attendance at this year’s Expo was noticeably down, Dierks said he hopes and expects future World Pork Expos and pork industry events to return to pre-pandemic attendance.
“This year we had very light international attendance and that was because of COVID-related travel restrictions. I expect that as vaccines spread and people get vaccinated, the international folks will return to Expo,” he said.