Plant shutdowns hurt pork producers

Pete Temple
Express Sports/Ag Editor

     A group of four pork producers met with an Express reporter in a Zoom meeting April 21 to discuss the problems they are having due to temporary shutdowns of meat packing plants in Eastern Iowa and throughout the region.

     Jim Hogan of Monticello, District 4 Director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, initially said he was worried that the producers’ tone that evening was too negative. On April 22, he called and said it probably wasn’t negative enough.

     “It’s gotten worse,” Hogan said.

     That’s because producers learned Wednesday morning that the Tyson plant in Waterloo was closing indefinitely to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak among its workforce.

     Fewer options for producers to market their hogs can leave them with a series of unsavory choices, including euthanizing hogs that have nowhere to go to be processed.

     “Somehow they have to be gotten rid of,” Hogan said. “It keeps backing up the food chain.”

     Renee Adams of Monticello agreed: “We can’t get our loads in. We’re having lots of loads that are cancelled.”

     Abby Jaeger is secretary of the Jones County Pork Producers. She and her husband Shane have been working with hogs for four years in Worthington. Jaeger said the pork industry as a whole is worried about the situation.

     “I would say right now it just feels like it’s a state of panic across the board for every producer,” she said. “Because if you’re not scared now, you’re scared in a month if (COVID-19) is still here, and if you’re not scared in a month, you’re scared if it’s going to be here in six weeks, or a year.

     “Nobody knows when there’s an end date. I just think the fear and panic sets in when you start to think long-term.”

     Hogan added, “For a lot of people, it’s day-by-day. Personally, we don’t have any ready for another couple of weeks. But there are loads every day that are getting turned back, and then the little pigs are getting weaned and they’re ready to go in. It’s a big problem.”

     Adams said she and her husband Chad send hogs to market year-round, but are currently trying to find ways to slow the process, which she said is the exact opposite of what pork producers usually do.

     “We have changed our diets so that the market hogs won’t grow any more, that they’ll maintain their weight,” Adams said. “We have upped the temperature in our barns. Just like humans, when they’re warmer, they don’t want to eat as much. And we’re tightening the feeders, so not as much feed is available to them.”

     Other producers, she said, are euthanizing the smallest pigs of the litter right away, trying to cut their numbers back.

     The packing plants themselves, Adams said, are taking steps to keep the food chain moving.

     “I just had a meeting with the Iowa Farm Bureau Advisory Committee,” Adams said. “One of the gentlemen said that the packing plants are not even using the whole hog when they’re processing now, that they’re only using about 50 percent of the hog, and throwing the rest away. They’re just cutting out the meat that they are selling the most of, because they’re trying to keep the flow going and push as many hogs through as they possibly can.”

     Abby Inglis of Olin, and her husband Dan, built their first hog building 10 years ago.

     “It’s sad for our farmers, but it’s also going to have a long term impact on consumers, because it’s going to have an impact on the prices they see in the marketplace,” Abby Inglis said.

     The situation affects other factions of agriculture as well. Cattle loads are also getting turned away, Hogan said.

     “On the grain side,” Adams said, “we’re not feeding as many pigs, because we’re not breeding as many sows. Therefore, the demand for corn is going to go down, and then the price of corn is going to drop even lower than what it is now.”

     The producers said they are working to find ways to keep their spirits up.

     “As a group we’re trying to stay positive,” Jaeger said. “I would say the saving grace for us has been that it’s the turn of a season, because now we’re in the dirt (planting crops). So the change of season has been a relief for us.”

     Inglis said community support can be important too. Anything from offering encouragement and moral support, up to providing a meal or daycare can give producers a lift in a stressful time, she said.

     “If people are reading this story and they have a farm family that they know of, it would be good to reach out to your farm community right now and just see how you can help them,” she said.

     “With ag,” Jaeger added, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s an uphill battle. But here we are, still doing it.”



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