COLUMBUS — Three weeks ago, Leslie McCuiston of Columbus got a call she wasn’t expecting.

In many cases, unexpected phone calls can mean bad news. That wasn’t the case this time.

McCuiston learned she’d been named the National Pork Board’s American Pig Farmer of the Year. The award goes to the pig farmer who represents the very best in animal care by using the NPB’s "We Care" principles, as well as a farmer who is outstanding at connecting with consumers and telling them the story of pork production.

Of the four finalists, McCuiston was selected after getting the highest combined score from a third-party judging panel and online voting. Bill Luckey, also from Columbus, was another finalist.

“I think surprise was my first reaction, of course,” McCuiston said in describing her response to the phone call. “I was in a group of amazing finalists so it really was an honor to think that they believed I could be a representative for the pork industry. Of course, my thoughts also go to the company I work for (The Maschhoffs) and I want to do a good job representing them, as well.”

McCuiston will spend time over the next year representing the pork industry in different ways, including speaking to the media and appearing at many events. The goal is to put a face on pig farming and tell the story of what America’s pork producers are doing on a day-to-day basis.

“I’ve been involved in the pork industry for about 15 years now,” McCuiston said. “I worked with Cargill Pork for about 11 years right out of college, and then I’ve been with The Maschhoffs for about 2 1/2 years. I also worked in a small-animal vet clinic for a couple of years, but the majority of my career has been in the pork industry.”

McCuiston is a senior production manager for The Maschhoffs, overseeing 10 farms in Nebraska and South Dakota. The farms are breed-to-wean operations so they raise baby piglets and care for the sows that take care of them. The farms are company-owned and managed, so her role is to work with the employees on a daily basis to make sure they’re doing the right things for the pigs and help those employees to do the best job they can.

“I really enjoy pig farming,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been a presenter for Operation Mainstreet, the volunteer group that goes out and speaks to community groups, students, dietetic groups and others. Talking about the pork industry is definitely a passion of mine.”

She’s done a little bit of everything in the industry, including research, breed-to-wean, wean-to-market and more, so if someone has a question about the pork industry, McCuiston has the confidence that she can answer them. After all, she’s been around agriculture most of her life.

“I grew up on a cattle farm and ranch,” she said, “where we raised cow-calf pairs and stocker cattle. We also had small grains, as well. I actually thought cattle farming is what I was going to do when I got out of college, but the pig business is where the door opened and where my career has landed.”

In the 15 years she’s been involved in the industry, pork production has changed a great deal. McCuiston said pork farmers in Nebraska and around the country have learned a lot and made a lot of improvements. She said the technological improvements and innovations “are so exciting,” and include advancements in environmental sustainability, as well as improvements in the basic environments in each hog barn.

“I tell people all the time that we have days when it’s 100 degrees in Nebraska and there are times it’s below zero outside,” she said, “but we can always keep the atmosphere in the barns comfortable for the animals.”

McCuiston is enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of the pork industry.

“To me, the business has grown, learned, corrected and improved,” she said, “as well as brings new innovation to the table all the time. I believe that’s the way forward for the industry, as well as all of agriculture. We’re great innovators, so when challenges come to the pork industry, I believe we will look to that innovation and improvement to remain successful into the future.”