Artful Approach to Building Relationships Benefits Iowa Meat Producers
Rich and Nancy Degner are in their kitchen, surrounded by cooking tools of past generations. Lining their kitchen walls are Sellers cabinets, vintage meat scales and antique pottery.
Nancy is slicing beef, pork and vegetables preparing them for kabobs. “Beef or pork, whatever Nancy prepares is what’s for dinner,” Rich jokes. “And I’m grateful for it.”
The couple’s dinner table has been the site of countless conversations about Iowa agriculture during the 42 years of their marriage
For 40 of those years Nancy has been with the Iowa Beef Industry Council. For 35 years Rich has been with the Iowa Pork Producers Association. Both are currently executive directors, and say they feel honored to have made a career working for Iowa livestock producers.
Nancy (’72 food science) and Rich (’72 agriculture and life sciences education, ’77 MS) are set to retire on September 30, 2015.
“I can’t think of another couple who have made such a lasting impact on the Iowa agriculture industry,” says Maynard Hogberg, emeritus professor and chair of animal science. “Rich and Nancy are masters at bringing people together. The approach they have taken in building meaningful and lasting relationships at Iowa Beef and Iowa Pork help us to serve our land grant mission,” Hogberg says.
It’s not surprising Rich and Nancy see eye-to-eye on most issues facing the meat industry. They’d like to see better representation in federal guidelines of the role of red meat in American diets. And, both believe expanding global meat trade benefits Iowa farmers.
At their core, it’s the role and value of meat production in sustaining Iowa agriculture that ties them and drives them.
“Our biggest challenge is customer perception of livestock’s role in a sustainable agricultural system,” Nancy says. Rich agrees, adding, “For agriculture to be sustainable in our state we need more livestock production. To meet the nutrient needs for our crops we are importing fertilizers. We could get them through livestock manure. And its application increases our soil’s organic matter and water holding capacity.”
The Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Beef Industry Council are active supporters of Iowa State University research, extension and student programs.
Rich oversees the grassroots organization of more than 4,000 Iowa pork producers. Funded by checkoff dollars, the association promotes and educates for, “a sustainable, socially responsible, profitable and globally competitive pork industry.”
Bringing the right people together at the right time is what Rich sees as one of the lasting impacts of his career.
“Being able to bring all our members from different segments of pork production together – large and small – that was a real accomplishment for our organization,” Rich says.
He’s also proud of his global travels to build relationships to grow trade opportunities for Iowa producers. His annual trips to Japan (more than 30) have built partnerships with top global meat companies, expanded markets for Iowa producers and, in some cases, led to establishing a global presence in Iowa.
“Rich has made sure the resources and focus of programs in our college were meeting the needs of the Iowa swine industry. This was especially true in tough budget times,” says Hogberg. “Because of him our college is stronger and the Iowa swine industry is an international leader.”
“Rich and Nancy have helped us to recruit the best people. Iowa Pork has supported building projects, faculty start-up packages, research and extension funding allowing us to recruit and retain top faculty. Iowa Beef Industry Council has supported research programs important to the beef industry. And, their personal support of student scholarships let us target high-achieving students,” Hogberg says.
Nancy and Rich are both trained educators. Both worked in Iowa classrooms before taking their current positions. Nancy serves as a spokesperson for the beef industry, oversees beef check-off programs and works with educators and nutritionists.
“I’ve found that if you focus on teaching and informing rather than promoting – if you offer healthful, evidence-based information – you can maintain our important relationship with consumers,” Nancy says.
From frequent TV spots cooking Iowa beef, to educational efforts at the Iowa State Fair, to programs for nutritionists, she’s known as a trusted source for consumers and health professionals. It’s the part of her legacy at Iowa Beef of which she’s most proud.
They see Iowa State University as critical to the success of their associations and Iowa agriculture.
“Iowa State is extremely important to livestock producers,” says Rich. “Producers judge Iowa State University by the relevance of research and extension efforts, by the education and training of good future employees and services such as the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. These are all successes I hope to see continue.”
The Degners are trusted friends and advocates of Iowa State. They have given generously of their time and talents on boards, committees and student activities.
Rich and Nancy were honored with the George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2008, they are Order of the Knoll members and lifetime members of the Iowa State University Alumni Association.
They have made long-term commitments to Iowa State in areas that include Iowa 4-H, the Iowa State University Alumni Association, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Human Sciences.
Erica Beirman, lecturer in food science and human nutrition, says Nancy is one of the culinary science program’s strongest supporters.
“Nancy has worked diligently to create internships for our students throughout the beef industry, including a unique, exclusive internship with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at their Culinary Innovation Center in Colorado,” says Beirman. “The Degners also offer a scholarship to ensure culinary science students have the financial support to accept an internship anywhere in the country.”
The Degners say it’s their way of giving back to an institution that helped give them their start – and that helped bring them together as a couple. The two met while part of an Iowa State contingent attending a national residence hall conference for student leaders.
“We felt it was important to give an added ‘carrot’ to get high-achieving animal science students to campus and because both of us have worked in agriculture so long, we feel it is important to support the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. We both understand the value of an education and what we have received from Iowa State,” Nancy says.
Nancy finishes skewering her colorful kabobs – a bright assortment of like-sized vegetables and meat. On Rich’s she arranges cubes of pork and beef. “No vegetables on my kabobs,” Rich says, “give me my veggies in my salad.”
Nancy smiles. “I like vegetables and meat. Except for kale,” she says. “Life is too short for kale.”
In retirement the two look forward to more good meals and good conversations. They plan to travel. And, Rich plans to return to Iowa State University in January – this time as a doctoral student – to work towards a life-long goal of earning his doctorate.
Piece by Piece Sustainability in Art
The “interconnectivity” of Iowa agriculture is so important to Rich and Nancy Degner it was a key concept in a mural they helped support at the Jeff and Deb Hansen Agricultural Student Learning Center at Iowa State University. Rich also was integral in garnering support for another mural, funded by the Iowa Pork Producers, to be placed in the Hansen Center. Created with tens of thousands of pieces of stained glass by Clint Hansen, the mural depicts the role of livestock in agriculture’s sustainability cycle.
Take a trip to Clint Hansen’s studio online to see more of the mural A Sustained Legacy: Advancing Science, Students, Farms, the World and learn more about this Iowa State alum and professional artist.