Illinois academic starts pig production business in Laos

Source: Illinois Farm Today

Jeff Galle is doing his bit to modernize the pork industry in one developing country.

The Illinois College faculty member is spending the winter in the Southeast Asian nation of Laos, ramping up a pork business that took a winding path before being established there. Now he makes three to four trips annually.

The venture began in Madagascar, a large island off the eastern coast of Africa.

“A pig production project had started there,” Galle said. “We negotiated with the president of Madagascar, but then he was ousted in a political coup. That put everything on hold.”

Some associates suggested that China may be a good fit, but that didn’t interest Galle.

“I said ‘Everybody’s going to China. I don’t want to be where everybody’s at,’” he said. “Then someone said something about Laos.”

There was a connection already — Xayphone Phouthavong. The native of Laos came to America decades ago as a foreign exchange student and eventually landed a faculty position at the University of California-Irvine.

Galle eventually partnered with Phouthavong in a hog production venture in Laos called Lao Fresh Meats. Tragically, Phouthavong was killed in a boating accident. Galle is carrying on and growing the business. The plan gained traction when a Laotian farmer was invited to attend the World Pork Expo in Iowa.

“We found a number of people who had pigs and several groups of people all had wanted to know more about what we were talking about here,” Galle said. “But they’re like Missouri people — you have to show them, then they’ll think about it.”

Galle has a deep background in swine. He taught agriculture for 30 years at John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois, the first 25 years in swine management.

“Even though I’m not an Extension specialist, I get called upon by a lot of folks with swine questions as if I were an Extension specialist,” he said. “Because of my exposure and experience, going to an international setting and trying to set up a pig production system seemed like a good thing to do.”

He and his partners sought to create a brand, which they did with Lao Fresh Meats. He is focusing largely on selling pigs, though he and his partners also feed out some. They are processed in a relatively new Hungarian-built butcher facility in the capital city, Vientiane, and sold largely to hotels and restaurants.

Industrial challenges abound in the landlocked country, bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, China, Myanmar and Cambodia.

“It’s a Third World country,” Galle said. “Here in the city (Vientiane) there are 700,000 people and you wouldn’t know much different than in other places. But as soon as you go to the country and you’re 100 meters off the main road, you find out that there’s nothing there. No electricity, no running water, no anything. Houses may not have a front door.”

Processing is often done on the farm.

“They are small-scale. A lot of people butcher at home,” Galle said. “But there is a processing industry near the capital. We were given an opportunity to take over a fairly new operation with a capacity of 20 pigs a day, four or five days a week.”

Like much of Southeast Asia, pork is an important element of Laotian diets. Production is common in rural areas. According to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 60 to 80% of households in upland areas raise pigs, and small pig production accounts for more than 80% of production nationwide.

There is plenty of room for improvement. There is low productivity due to lack of feed. Much of the animals are free range. There have been efforts to improve swine rations, with many farmers experimenting on planting stylo, a legume used as forage. One study indicates the practice has increased daily weight gain so much in some areas it has halved the time needed to grow pigs to marketable weight.

Disease is also an ever-present challenge.

“They have all the diseases in the world over here — foot-and-mouth, pseudo rabies,” Galle said. “There is a lot of different things.”

Galle was met with a primitive industry, something he has pushed against. But it’s a slow process.

“Everything is typical backyard production, with pigs running around loose,” he said. “There has been some progress over the decades to become real-world animal production. A pig here and there doesn’t make for a business. That was the bulk of what’s going on. Since that time a fair amount of people have started up production in bigger facilities, but there’s still not a lot.

“We built facilities to show them what needed to be done. We taught them to pour slab and to make buildings and farm operations shower-in-and-shower-out to protect from a biosecurity standpoint.

“Nutrition is important. They’re improving the quality of diet.”