Although 2020 was a hard year to find the good news, AgriTalk host Chip Flory said pork exports were definitely one of those good news stories. On Monday, Flory discussed the 2020 pork export report with Norman Bessac, vice president of international marketing for the National Pork Board.

“The big numbers for us were trending in the right direction. It was a year of hyper growth,” Bessac said. “Volume was up 11%. But as important, if probably not more so, the value of that pork was also up 11%. So, we were able to ship more and fortunately people paid us more for it in 2020.”

From January to December, 6.56 billion pounds of U.S. pork and pork variety meat, valued at $7.7 billion, were exported globally. Pork exports accounted for 29.3% of total U.S. pork production.

Develop markets and build confidence

Market development was the big story of 2020. Although there’s no doubt China helped push the U.S. toward records, with China’s volume up 56% and value up 75%.

“We certainly saw that coming in,” Bessac said. “China is the driver of the market. We participate in a global market, so you always want to know what’s going on with them. But we’re also fortunate that we had trade agreements solidified in Japan and Mexico. We were able to recapture some of that business in Japan that is so important and provides such a good value for us. Canada volume was good. Obviously, COVID-19 hit some markets, whether central South America or South Korea, but we see those coming back.”

That’s why a diversified export strategy is so crucial in 2021, he explained.“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket. We need to look for where the growth will be and make sure we’re doing what we need to do to develop those markets and create values for producers,” Bessac said.

Creating confidence in U.S. pork will continue to lead the pork industry’s export efforts over the next five years.

“If buyers have confidence in U.S. pork, they’re loyal. And a loyal customer is obviously our most profitable, our most stable and our most growing one. So, to the degree we can build their confidence in U.S. pork by demonstrating its value, its consistency and the variety we have to offer, we have a strong story to tell,” he said.

Where does China fit in?

Knowing that China was instrumental in pushing U.S. pork exports to record levels in 2020, how does their improving economy impact what’s ahead for U.S. exports?

Bessac said there’s no doubt everyone’s trying to do all they can to learn about China’s current situation. Although the picture isn’t completely clear, there’s no doubt that African swine fever (ASF) continues to affect that market.

“When you got 50% of the volume and consumption in the world being done in one country, you really need to know what’s going on there. We see China recovering some this year, I think that’s why you may see exports take a modest step back in volume this year, maybe 2% to 3%. But China is going to buy pork over the long term, even with their 98.5% self-sufficient, there are value opportunities for us there.”

Balanced growth is important, he added. The U.S. is focused on developing and growing relationships with customers in Mexico, Japan and Canada, while looking for new ones, whether that’s the Philippines, Vietnam or other emerging markets.

The bright spot for 2021

The opportunities look promising for 2021. Bessac said he’s focused on building confidence in diversifying U.S. pork exports.

He sees a lot of opportunities in those markets where U.S. pork export competitors have moved more toward China.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to build loyalty there. Loyal customers are in it for the long term, and they’re their highest value,” Bessac said.

The U.S. pork industry sees many opportunities for growth this year. Bessac said their focus is on value first, and then the volume.

“And sending a quality product over there doesn’t hurt us at all,” Flory added.

Farm Journal’s Pork | Jennifer Shike | February 08