October is pork month, and the Iowa pork industry, including production, processing and packing, provided more than 141,800 jobs in 2015, or about the total combined populations of Ames, Ankeny and Coralville, with nearly 52% in production. That same year, the industry contributed $756.4 million in state and local taxes.
29-year-old Antonio Munoz, a native of Coatepec in Veracruz, Mexico, works on a hog farm near Garnavillo. Munoz studied veterinary science in Veracruz for five years, studying wildlife, working in zoos and aquariums, and even observing jaguars in the jungle for six months as a volunteer for a research program. So how did he end up working with pigs in Clayton County?
“I grew up with pigs and coffee,” Munoz said, explaining that in his mountain town of 60,000 people, coffee is everything. Like many others, his family owns a coffee plantation – one which he’d like to take over some day. His neighbor was a beekeeper, so Munoz often helped him check and care for the very bees that pollinated his family’s coffee plants. His grandfather raised pigs in the backyard as a hobby.
Munoz spent a year studying agronomy but realized he preferred to work with animals. In veterinary school, he had the opportunity to work with many animals on the school’s ranch. Though he found himself drawn especially to wildlife, he knew farm animals would make a better career – so he returned to working with pigs.
“There are many recruiters of many American companies in Mexico recruiting veterinarians and agronomists,” Munoz explained. He met with one such recruiter, was hired by one of the largest pork producing companies in the U.S., and that’s how he and his wife, Ana Macías, ended up in Iowa. Iowa producers market an estimated 50 million hogs per year, one-third of the hogs raised in the U.S. The state is the nation’s leader in pork production, contributing $36.7 billion in sales in 2015.
For the past six months, Munoz has been helping sows and piglets through farrowing and weaning. As a technician on the farm, he checks sows approaching their due dates, cares for them and feeds them, and helps them through the farrowing process. He dries newborn piglets to keep them warm, placing them under heat lamps. When litters are too large, he redistributes the piglets from large litters to smaller ones to make sure each piglet gets enough food and attention. He vaccinates piglets (sometimes over 2,000 in a single day) and weans them when they are 16-18 days old.
“For the welfare of the animals, the most important thing is the environment,” said Munoz. Pigs are kept cool with sprinklers in the summer and warmed with heaters in the winter. He gives vaccinations and iron supplements, checks feed and scrapes feeders to keep the food fresh, and admits that he even tastes the pigs’ feed. “I try everything because I want to know what my animals are eating,” he said.
Of all the animals he’s worked with, pigs are his favorite. “They are really good animals,” said Munoz. “They are not aggressive if you take care of them. They are easy animals for production, and pigs are really smart. In France, they are used for finding truffles; they have very good sense of smell. They can learn; there is a fashion of having micropigs for pets and they can be trained like a dog. They have a good sense of family – in the wild, they live in groups and have very complex social structures.” Munoz observed wild boars while working in Mexico, and enjoyed studying their behavior.
Munoz is in the United States thanks to the nonimmigrant NAFTA Professional (TN) visa, which allows citizens of Canada and Mexico, as NAFTA professionals, to work in the United States in prearranged business activities for U.S. or foreign employers. “There are many TN workers who don’t speak English, so I am the translator. When they are training, if they have some questions, I like to help them,” said Munoz, who taught English in his country. “I liked to study languages when I was younger, but it's not a very successful career in Mexico.”
Recent political discussion of NAFTA has Munoz and his wife checking the news obsessively. “It’s really hard because I can do nothing. We were very worried about it. Fortunately, it seems they are more worried about trading than visas, but we know we could stay here for many years but we also know we could go back to Mexico tomorrow because of NAFTA.”
“There are thousands of TN workers in the U.S. Most are working with dairy in Wisconsin, with pigs in Iowa, or with poultry in Georgia. Most of us are here because we send money to our families in Mexico, because we know someday we are going to go back there and we want to have savings there, to have our own businesses or invest in something,” Munoz said, explaining that the farm he works on is currently short-staffed. “Farms don’t have enough staff here because workers prefer to go work in some other place. Many companies are having this now so I think that’s a reason they are bringing TN workers.”
“I really like this job because I feel like I’m producing healthy food for people,” he explained. “I feel really fine to work in one of the biggest companies of pork production in the USA and I’m learning a lot."
Photo by Annie Kavanaugh of Flickr's Creative Commons.