DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowans may take it for granted that the state produces massive amounts of meat and grain to help feed the world. But the state's huge export business owes much to an Iowan who was in the Air Force in Japan 50 years ago.
After a typhoon devastated Japan's hog farms in 1959, the airman suggested having hogs airlifted to Japan from his home state.
In Iowa, a corn grower from Boone saw the humanitarian gesture as a way to introduce the Japanese to U.S. grain as livestock feed and persuaded the Eisenhower administration to back the idea. He and other farmers had been looking for a way to build a global market for Iowa grain and prop up prices for the commodity.
"They didn't know whether this was going to work," said that farmer's son, Hans Goeppinger of Boone. "It had never been done before." It did work.
The 35 hogs that made it to Japan — one died en route — eventually produced 500,000 more, and today most of Japan's hogs still carry those Iowa genetics.
The hogs also are likely to eat some Iowa corn. Japan imports 16 million metric tons of U.S. feed grains annually, out of 50 million to 60 million metric tons that are shipped overseas each year.
Today, the nation is the biggest market for feed grains and the No. 1 buyer of U.S. pork, too. Japan imports $1.5 billion worth of pork annually, at least one-third of which probably comes from Iowa, state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said. One of Japan's largest meat companies, Itoham Foods, has a pork-packing operation in Sioux City.
Goeppinger's father, Walter, founded the export promotion arm of the American corn industry, the U.S. Grains Council, after the hog lift.
"The longtime fallout (of the hog lift) has been really quite amazing in the context of international trade," said Tom Dorr, the council's president and a former Iowa farmer himself.
Northey said there is no way leaders of the effort could have envisioned the level of trade it would reach. At the time, Japan was nowhere near the economic powerhouse it is today, and the Japanese consumed some fish but little meat.
The hog lift "was the right thing to do," Northey said.
Dorr and Northey joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Iowa farmers in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the hog lift this week in Japan.
The lift transpired this way, according to an Agriculture Department account of the anniversary and the recollections of Walter Goeppinger:
The airman, Master Sgt. Richard Thomas, was working in public relations for the Air Force in Tokyo when he suggested replenishing Japan with Iowa hogs.
He took his idea to the U.S. agricultural attache at the embassy, and then the plan got to Goeppinger, then the president of the National Corn Growers Association.
Iowa farmers donated 36 hogs, mostly boars, for the project. The Agriculture Department agreed to provide 60,000 bushels of corn for feed from government stocks, but only after department officials were convinced of "the possibility of selling large amounts" of grain there, Walter Goeppinger said in a 1980 memorandum.
Grain was moved to Japan by ship. The hogs were loaded onto an Air Force cargo plane in Des Moines on a crisp day in January 1960, according to Hans Goeppinger, then 19. He said he was the youngest person there.
The president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, his wife, and a director of the national corn growers accompanied the hogs and bathed them during stopovers on Pacific islands to keep the animals from overheating. Walter Goeppinger would later call them the real heroes of the project.
Hans Goeppinger, who is retired from his family's land-management business, said getting Japan to use U.S. hogs was important because they had produced more meat per pound of feed than their domestic breeds. At the time, according to his father, Japanese hogs lived on a nongrain diet that included coconut scraps, sweet potatoes and silkworm cocoons.
U.S. corn growers saw the hog lift as a way of showing the advantage of using American corn for feed with U.S. hogs, he said.
"They wanted to prove to the Japanese that U.S. corn could be exported to Japan to their advantage than trying to work with what was left with their hog production," he said. Having the U.S. hogs eating U.S. feed "almost assured a positive outcome."
The Agriculture Department, which was charged with managing U.S. grain supplies at the time, benefited from the hog lift, too. The department "got a new, big and ever-expanding market for its grain that helped keep it from drowning in corn at a critical time," Walter Goeppinger wrote.
Dorr said the hog lift eventually showed that there was a need for promoting U.S. grain exports. Today, the grains council has 10 international offices and programs in more than 50 countries.
The hog lift has had a lasting impact in other ways. Iowa and the Japanese province where the hogs were sent, Yamanashi, developed a relationship as sister states. Iowa governors, including Vilsack, made regular treks to Japan.
Yamanashi officials donated a bell that sits on the Capitol grounds.
Vilsack's wife, Christie, took a special interest in the relationship. In 2004, she picked a children's book about the hog lift, "Sweet Corn and Sushi," to feature on an annual tour to promote literacy. Every kindergarten student in the state received a copy of the book.
Northey, meanwhile, sees a lesson in the event for today's Iowans: "To think of what kinds of things like this that are out there that we should be doing now that will matter to people 50 years from now."