posted on Monday, September 28, 2020 in Central Region News
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.
A study commissioned by the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) and released earlier this month shows that Iowa’s pork industry is critical to the state’s economy.
That is certainly evident in the west central county of Audubon.
Jobs spur economic growth
Audubon County’s pork industry provides an estimated 520 full- and part-time jobs, per the analysis.
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, veterinary, and nutritional employees. AMVC has 18 sow farms in Iowa and also 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 Crawford County Trust & Savings Bank. In addition, manure offsets 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 report found.
Generally in Audubon County, people who work in the pork industry live in dual-income households and have families, Wessel said. That cycle keeps school chairs filled—supporting the school system—and likely means a stronger 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.”
Multimillion dollar investment
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, which includes approximately 150,000 pig spaces with three farrowing sites, two nursery sites, and about 110 finishing barns, plus others who do custom feed-to-finish. They also farm row crops.
In 2018, they added several more jobs when they opened Waspy’s Truck Stop, a multimillion investment that sits on 16 acres along Highway 71, on the southern edge of the city of Audubon. Waspy’s also has a much smaller location in nearby Templeton, in Carroll County. Both sites were built utilizing as many local contractors as possible.
Waspy’s 16-acre Audubon campus offers a convenience store, fuel, a certified scale, truck and trailer parking, a trucker lounge, two showers, a laundry facility, a car wash, an RV station, and The Feed Mill Restaurant. The 36-room Blue Grass Inn & Suites features an indoor swimming pool, exercise facility, and banquet room, and often accommodates corporate visitors and meetings. Waspy’s Truck Service Center will soon fully open with four truck wash bays, as well as tire and diesel repair.
“We always get questions like, ‘Why didn’t you build down by the interstate?’” said the Handloses’ daughter, Beth Handlos Wahlert, chief operating officer of Waspy’s. “My folks decided to build here” to draw people further into the county, as Interstate 80 borders the southern county line.
The Handlos family includes, from left, Beth Handlos Wahlert, Lawrence and Doris Handlos, and Brian Handlos.
Two Palms Grilling, started in 2009 by the Handloses’ son Brian and his wife Pat, was purchased by Waspy’s, so The Feed Mill customers can enjoy the grilled smoked meats during buffets and special events at the restaurant. In addition, folks can preorder whole cuts like bone-in hams, pork ribs, and pork loin, available for pickup at Waspy’s during the holidays. Brian Handlos, chief executive officer of Waspy’s, is looking to expand into lunch meats to sell at Waspy’s convenience stores.
Between the farm and truck stops, the Handloses employ about 120 people, and still have positions to fill.
AMVC 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. He noted having a unique perspective of the company, as his wife has worked at AMVC for more than 20 years.
“That’s the most impressive thing about how AMVC is managed—and I say that in a very good way,” Wessel said. “They continue to attract high-quality people who have an interest in the community and making things better. That takes a lot of energy and persistence to have a model that gets that buy-in.”
Along with numerous community volunteers and sponsors, AMVC managing partners and employees are involved with industry organizations and are members of advisory boards for related industries. They also serve on economic development boards and committees that, along with AMVC’s financial support, helped drive the following projects:
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 run-down 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 into a park.
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 lagoon was closed, allowing the site to become usable 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. “They know that’s where their employees live and work, so they want to make it an enjoyable place to be. All of the amenities are exciting to offer and definitely great progress to see in small-town Audubon and Audubon County.”
Partners in education
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.
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.
“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, get their hands dirty.”
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’
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, 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, at 13,626 people, 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.
Lawrence Handlos hopes attractions such as the truck stop will drive more residents to the county, like his daughter, who returned to Audubon from Ames three years ago to oversee Waspy’s.
“It’s a slow process,” he said, “getting people to move back to a community after they’ve left. They need something to come back to.”
The town of Audubon, in particular, could use more housing to accommodate growth, from rental units to single-family dwellings, Handlos Wahlert said. 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 so far has built two duplexes and a triplex.
For the past eight years, 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 through the year,” said Slater, with ACED, “to just kind of keep the community progressing.”
Story credit to: Iowa Pork Producers Association