Mike Patterson has been raising hogs for 23 years, but he can barely stomach the situation his farm has been in over the last few weeks.
The closure of a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in mid-April has left the Minnesota farmer and 12 other farm families with a huge backlog of pigs and crowded barns. As the facility normally processes the meat in Patterson’s co-op, its farmers have been facing tough decisions when it comes to whether to euthanize their animals.
“We do everything we can to make sure that those animals are healthy and thriving in our barns to make them into delicious food,” Patterson says. “Anything that goes against that, like depopulating a barn or having meat product going to waste, really is difficult, especially for a farmer like myself who is out there caring for our animals on a daily basis.”
Patterson says collectively his co-op should have shipped about 8,000 hogs to Smithfield since its closure, with another 1,000 by the end of the week. They’ve had to scramble to find other facilities and local butchers that would take their hogs in order to make room for new pigs. Patterson and other members, however, haven’t had much luck and decided they needed to euthanize 1,500 of their hogs earlier this week.
“We’ve been doing everything we can to find space,” he says, adding that local butchers have been helpful, but not able to keep up with their needs. “We were at the point where we were out of options.”
None of the hogs that were put down were from Patterson’s farm, but he says he anticipates that day is coming with a new shipment of pigs scheduled to fill up one of his barns on May 19.
Patterson and his co-op members are not in unique circumstances. The shuttering of packing plants across the country due to COVID-19 outbreaks has left pork producers, chicken farmers and cattle ranchers with a logjam of mature animals.
The backlogs are particularly urgent for hog farmers, as pigs need to be slaughtered before they become too heavy for the processing equipment to handle. Farmers have trouble selling hogs that grow to be more than 350 lbs. Patterson says he normally sends his hogs to the plant once they reach 280 to 290 lbs, but the animals gain as much as 2.5 to 3 lbs a day when they’re in his finishing barns.
Despite President Donald Trump’s executive order that is forcing plants to reopen, the National Pork Board is projecting that more than 1.5 million hogs could be culled in the coming weeks across the country. Steve Meyer, the economist who came up with this projection, estimates that 600,000 hogs did not go to slaughter last week and another 900,000 will fail to make it into a plant this week. It costs farmers around $140 to raise a hog, according to Meyer, which will add up quickly if more animals don’t make it through processing.
Gene Noem, a hog farmer who sits on the board of directors with the National Pork Board says the order to reopen plants is welcome, but it’s unknown at this point how and when the facilities will actually start operating again. In the meantime, farmers will continue to run out of space.
“We have a reputation of not caring. Our situation is absolutely the opposite,” says Noem. “Producers have never faced such a gut wrenching decision thinking about [euthanasia].”
A lot of pigs can accumulate, he says, in just a matter of days. For example, he’s aware of a plant in northwest Iowa, which normally harvests 20,000 pigs a day that’s been closed for several days. With every five-day delay, around 100,000 pigs are backed up, he says. “We’re trying to catch up, but we’re not really sure how that can happen,” he says
Sonny Perdue, the US Secretary of Agriculture, said this week that plants would reopen in days. However, he said that plants will not be operating at the same capacity due to safety measures to protect employees from COVID-19.
The USDA has allocated $3 billion in financial support to farmers through the CARES Act to pay for meat, dairy and fresh produce that will be sent to food banks. It’s also included $1.6 billion in direct payments to hog farmers, with payment limitations of $250,000 per person.
But organizations like the National Pork Producers Council have said current federal measures are simply not enough. Rachel Gantz, NPPC’s communications director, says she anticipates many farmers will go bankrupt given the current circumstances.
“Dairy producers can dump milk, fruit and vegetable growers can dump produce, but hog farmers have nowhere to move their hogs,” she says. “This is a dire situation that threatens the livelihoods of thousands of farm families.”
Gantz says that market prices for pork have plummeted due to the closure of restaurants and universities. Before COVID-19, farmers were projected to make a $10 profit on every hog. Now, US pork producers are estimated to face a collective $5 billion loss for the remainder of the year. The price of hogs has fallen close to zero, with losses reaching $70 per hog, she says.
The NPPC has called on the federal government to indemnify farmers for the hogs they’ve had to euthanize and provide funding that would address the depopulation and disposal costs. It also wants eligibility extended to hog farmers under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s emergency lending programs.
And Patterson, who says he’s concerned about the future of his business, is trying to focus on doing everything he can to ensure he finds a place to house his hogs before he has to resort to euthanizing them.
“I take great pride in producing food that goes on people’s tables,” he says. “These decisions are very difficult. From an emotional standpoint, it’s going to be hard on our farmers… if there was another option we would definitely take it.”