Audubon County economy benefits from local pork industry

Audubon County economy benefits from local pork industry

Iowa remains the country’s top pork-producing state, even as 2020 has doled out a constant barrage of changes. One of the most constant elements is the economic activity in Iowa’s rural counties that is spurred by pig production.

In recognition of October Pork Month, the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) dug a little deeper to see how one rural county has benefited from pig production. It’s a story of local leaders, businesses and pig farmers working together to create job opportunities and community improvements supported by those in the pork industry.

Jobs spur economic growth

A family-owned truck stop. New housing. Fresh entertainment options.

Several development projects over the past few years in Audubon County are not only providing jobs, but they’re serving as recruitment tools to lure new residents to one of the least-populous counties in the state.

Much of the major building and revitalization is thanks, in part, to area pig farmers.

Audubon County’s pork industry provides an estimated 520 full- and part-time jobs, per an analysis by Decision Innovation Solutions (DIS), an Iowa economic research firm. The DIS study was commissioned by IPPA and released in early September.

For a predominantly rural area, “that’s major employment,” said Sara Slater of Audubon County Economic Development (ACED). In 2019, U.S. Census Bureau data placed Audubon as Iowa’s third-least populous county with an estimated population of about 5,500.

“Having that type of work force locally—that’s housing, that’s tax dollars, that’s supporting of businesses and schools,” Slater said.

AMVC, the nation’s 10th largest pork producer, is headquartered in Audubon and has a swine management presence in 10 states. The company employs 350 people in Iowa, from on-farm staff to internal management to veterinary and nutrition employees. It works with a network of contract growers.

Contract growing—raising pigs for another farmer or company like AMVC—can be a viable option for beginning farmers who don’t have the capital to weather a downturn in the markets, swine disease issues, or other risks.

Beyond that, becoming a contract grower creates an extra source of revenue that’s allowed some Audubon families to continue generational farms during years of low margins, said Troy Wessel of Audubon, president and chief executive officer of the Audubon branch of Crawford County Trust and Savings Bank. In addition, those farmers have access to swine manure, and that can offset fertilizer costs.

“Those are things you just can’t put a dollar figure on,” he said. The efficiency of a contract growing system “allowed them maybe to grow their other farming entities because they had the pork influence.”

What is measurable, though, are the impacts of pork jobs on the county as a whole. In Audubon County, jobs tied to the pork industry generated $16.2 million in household income, the DIS report found.

Generally in Audubon County, people who work in the pork industry live in dual-income households and have families, Wessel said. Continuing that cycle keeps school chairs filled—supporting the education system—and strengthens the retail climate, he noted.

“We’ve been able to keep some of those amenities that maybe would have otherwise struggled,” Wessel said. For example, “to have a grocery store in some of these smaller, rural communities is a really, really big deal.”

Pig farmers personally grow other businesses

Longtime Audubon-area pig farmers Lawrence “Waspy” Handlos and his wife, Doris, want to see their community thrive. They employ a number of people through their family hog operation Handlos Family Farms, plus others who provide custom feed-to-finish services to the farm operation.

But their business sway didn’t stop at the farm gate.

In 2018, they added several more non-farm jobs when they opened Waspy’s Truck Stop, a multimillion-dollar investment that sits on more than 16 acres along Highway 71, on the southern edge of the town of Audubon. Waspy’s has a smaller location in nearby Templeton, in Carroll County. Both sites were built with the goal of utilizing as many local contractors as possible.

Waspy’s Audubon complex offers a range of businesses that urban and suburban Iowans take for granted, but are vital to rural areas: a convenience store, fuel, a car wash, an RV waste station, and The Feed Mill Restaurant. Then, there are services especially important for truckers: a certified five-axle scale, truck and trailer parking, a trucker lounge, free showers, and a free laundry facility. Waspy’s Truck Wash includes bays for washing out livestock trailers, as well as automatic and hand-wash spaces. As part of Waspy’s Truck Service Center, the diesel repair business will open in October, with tire repair and sales to come.

Also on-site is the 36-room Blue Grass Inn & Suites that features an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and a rentable party/banquet room. The facilities often accommodate corporate visitors and business meetings.

“We always get questions like, ‘Why didn’t you build down by Interstate 80?’” said the Handloses’ daughter, Beth Handlos Wahlert, chief operating officer of Waspy’s. “My folks decided to build here to give back to the community” and draw traffic into Audubon, like those traveling from St. Louis to Minneapolis. Interstate 80 is located about 15 miles south of the town of Audubon, and borders the southern county line.

The Handlos family includes, from left, Brian and Pat Handlos; Lawrence and Doris Handlos; and Beth Handlos Wahlert.

Two Palms Grilling & Catering, started in 2009 by the Handloses’ son Brian and his wife Pat, was purchased by Waspy’s two years ago, and customers continue to enjoy the grilled smoked meats during special events. In addition, folks can preorder whole cuts like bone-in hams, pork ribs, and pork loins, available for pickup at Waspy’s during the holidays. Brian Handlos is chief executive officer of Waspy’s, and his wife is director of operations.

Between the farm and Waspy’s businesses, the Handlos family employs about 120 people, and still has positions to fill.

Employees are devoted community members

AMVC is run by managing partners who include, from left, Jason Hocker of Audubon, Michelle Sprague of Audubon, Amy Littler of Adair, and Bob Blomme of Audubon.

AMVC, the multistate pig businesses headquartered in Audubon, frequently contributes to or helps coordinate efforts for various community initiatives, and its employees tend to be just as passionate about enhancing where they live.

“Sometimes it takes dollars to be invested back into the community; other times, it’s time,” said Alicia Humphrey, AMVC’s public relations coordinator.

Those “people resources” are valuable, said Wessel, the bank president.

“One of the very impressive things about how AMVC is managed is they continue to attract high-quality people who have an interest in the community and making things better,” Wessel said. “That takes a lot of energy and persistence to have a model that gets that buy-in.”

AMVC employees have joined numerous community volunteers to serve on economic development boards and committees that, along with financial support from AMVC and other sponsors, helped drive the following projects to improve the livability of their community:

The exterior of the Rose Theater in downtown Audubon as it was stripped during renovation work, left, and as it looks today, right.
  • Renovation of The Rose, a deteriorated turn-of-the-century movie theater in downtown Audubon. With a volunteer staff, The Rose reopened for regular showtimes in June 2018.
  • Replacement of a rundown mobile home park with the Audubon Recreation Center in Audubon, a more than $2 million facility that offers basketball and racquetball courts, a batting cage, a walking track, an eight-lane bowling alley, an arcade, a restaurant, and a community room that’s available for events and meetings. The building, in the works for more than a decade, was completed in late 2018.
  • Opening of The Children’s Nest, the only licensed child care center serving Audubon County and surrounding areas. The center opened in 2015 and is housed in a wing of the Friendship Home long-term care facility in Audubon. Children ages 4 weeks through preschool have opportunities for daily interactions with senior residents, like through art, movement, music, and games.
The first project for AMVC’s charitable organization, AMVC Cares, was transforming a salvage yard, top image, into a park, lower image.

In addition, AMVC’s nonprofit organization, AMVC Cares, was established to improve quality of life locally and around the region. In 2008, AMVC Cares purchased a salvage yard in the unincorporated town of Hamlin, at the intersection of Highways 71 and 44 in the center of Audubon County. With donations from area businesses and other sources, debris was removed and the space was transformed into a park that features trees, a shelter and a grassy area. The park sits just southeast of Darrell’s Place, winner of the inaugural Iowa’s Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin Contest in 2003, and is along the T-Bone Recreational Trail that begins in the city of Audubon and runs south into Cass County.

Another AMVC Cares project involved cleanup of an old swine farrowing/finishing facility that was no longer being used in northeast Audubon County. Buildings and concrete were removed and the manure lagoon was closed, allowing the site to be restored to farm ground. A neighboring landlord purchased the land.

“AMVC partners are very community-focused, especially in Audubon where the roots of the company are,” Humphrey said.

Educational opportunities offered

Educating workers and future workers can play an important role in sustainable economic development.

AMVC partnered with Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to launch the Swine Medicine Education Center (SMEC) in 2010. SMEC provides veterinary students and practicing veterinarians with hands-on experiences and education in swine health production.

“Some universities don’t have updated barns and facilities, so the veterinarians haven’t been exposed to the size and scale of what modern farms are today,” AMVC’s Humphrey said. “Students will come out to our sow farms and grow-finish barns and learn about swine health. They can see things, touch things, ask questions, and get real hands-on experience.”

The program continues to grow and broaden its impact. Highlights include training 651 fourth-year veterinary medicine students from 31 universities; 127 international veterinarians and pig production executives from 35 countries; 15 domestic veterinarians; and 79 swine stakeholders.

Alicia Humphrey, public relations coordinator for AMVC, hosted a live virtual sow farm tour for students at Audubon High School in May.

AMVC also works within the local education system. Humphrey often speaks to high school students about the swine industry and career opportunities, and does virtual tours of a sow farm that allow students exposure to pig farming without leaving the classroom.

“Many have never seen the inside of a sow farm,” Humphrey said. “They drive up and down the road and see the different barns, but don’t know what happens inside. Hearing students say afterward, ‘Hey, I might be interested in working in a pig barn someday,’ is awesome, especially since there are fewer kids growing up on farms.

“AMVC is very forward-thinking and progressive, so if we can influence the next generation and guide them along the path of maybe being in pork production or working for AMVC, that’s a win,” she added.

As part of the Launch Kids Club summer program, kids learn about pig farming and interact with piglets from an AMVC sow farm.

Educating those who aren’t necessarily interested in pursuing a pork-related career is also beneficial, as they can become proponents for the industry. AMVC participates with the Launch Kids Club summer program for elementary-age kids in and around Audubon County. Launch is designed to teach persistence and hard work, plus gives kids experiences with what’s going on around the county and state. AMVC leads pork-themed sessions to teach kids how pork fits into a healthy diet or where pork comes from. They also get to see and touch live piglets.

During October Pork Month, AMVC supplies pork and employees to grill it at the concession stand during an Audubon High School football game. Profits benefit the school, plus players’ parents who typically work at the stand can take a break to watch the game.

‘Something to come back to’

The Waspy’s digital sign flashes a series of messages about job openings at the truck stop, restaurant, and hotel.

An improved job market, new amenities, and an uptick in business activity can help lure people back to their hometowns—or keep them from moving away in the first place, pig farmer Lawrence Handlos said.

The five incorporated communities that make up Audubon County are not unlike many small towns in Iowa that have struggled to gain traction and grow. The county’s overall population peaked in the early 1900s and has steadily declined since then. From 1980 to 2015, its population dropped 32.6%, making it Iowa’s third-fastest declining county at the time, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

Both Lawrence and Doris Handlos hope attractions such as their truck stop will drive more residents to the county, like their daughter, who returned to Audubon from Ames three years ago to oversee Waspy’s businesses.

“It’s a slow process,” Lawrence Handlos said, “getting people to move back to a community after they’ve left. They need something to come back to, and to come back for.”

The town of Audubon, in particular, could use more housing to accommodate growth, from rental units to single-family dwellings, said Handlos Wahlert, who oversees Waspy’s. Waspy’s recently hired a full-time server who was relocating with her husband from Omaha, Neb. When they couldn’t find a place to rent in Audubon, they settled in Elkhorn in nearby Shelby County.

This triplex in Audubon is among the housing projects initiated by Audubon County Economic Development.

ACED continues to initiate housing projects and has built two duplexes and a triplex.

AMVC, Landmands Bank, and Audubon State Bank have been key contributors to ACED’s housing fund, which is also used to demolish blighted properties to make way for future development. Each of the three businesses has donated $10,000 annually since 2012.

“We try to do two projects throughout the year,” said Slater, with ACED, “to just kind of keep the community progressing.”