Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Pakala jumps into pork industry as youth ambassador

By Heather Thorstensen

Date Modified: 10/14/2010 10:12 AM

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AMES, Iowa— Sarah Pakala is eight months into her year as Iowa's Premier Pork Youth Ambassador.

So far, the 21-year-old from Dike can count appearances at 11 events. These include county fairs and a trip to Washington, D.C., where she explained to consumers that pork comes from pigs, got them to try samples without drowning the meat in barbecue sauce and distributed recipe cards.

Her main messages are that pork is as healthy to eat as boneless, skinless chicken breast and that Iowa's pork industry generates jobs. Based on the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, an estimated 39,000 jobs are directly related to raising or caring for hogs in Iowa.

She's also addressing negative perceptions of the hog industry.

"Nine times out of ten, when you walk up to someone, it's negative," she said. "...We have something amazing here.In Iowa, we're the number one hog producing state in the country. I want them to know that. It's controversial and I want people to know the good story."

Being pork ambassador has spurred Pakala to pursue a career promoting the pork industry.With an ag business degree from Hawkeye Community College and a degree in agricultural studies set to be hers next May from Iowa State University, Pakala hopes to work for the Iowa Pork Producers Association or the National Pork Board.

All this comes from a person who didn't grow up in the pork industry. Her parents, Lynn and Gayl, kept calves and broilers for her and her three younger siblings to show in youth livestock exhibitions.

Pakala stepped into the hog business while attending community college, when she took a job at the Degener-Juhl Farm Partnership, a farrow-to-finish operation with 1,700 sows in rural Hudson.

"I didn't know anything about raising pigs, I'd been in 4-H, but I hadn't shown pigs, but I had the work ethic and determination to learn. I absolutely loved it," she said.

She worked in the farrowing barn.

"They really wanted me to learn and to know how to do things properly and not just work to get the job done, but know that every part of the cycle of a pig's life is important, from farrowing all the way to finishing," she said.

She liked her co-workers and figuring out how to help a farrowing sow. On school breaks, she still returns to work at the farm. She also briefly worked at another hog farm near ISU, but left to focus on school.

She jumped in to the ambassador program in similar fashion, skipping the usual prerequisite of serving as county ambassador. She studied for the knowledge test and emerged above four other candidates competing for the title and a $2,000 scholarship from the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

"To be engaged, you always have to be one step ahead," she said.

She has one more ambassador event scheduled at the end of October in Florida for the National Pork Board's "The Other White Meat Tour," where she'll hand out more pork samples.

Other appearances could pop up before next January, when she passes on her title at the Iowa Pork Congress.

Edward Juhl, who manages Degener-Juhl Farm Partnership's employees and hogs, is confident in Pakala's ability to serve the industry as pork ambassador. He is particularly impressed with her attention to details.

"Sarah is an excellent spokesperson for the industry. I think she understands all the way how farms work, from farrowing to nursery to finishing. She has a good grasp on how to represent our industry," he said.