On pork farms all over Missouri, the dawn of each day brings the birth of pigs and — usually — the departure of older ones.
Todd Hays, a longtime pork farmer in Monroe City, Missouri, and vice president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said the pig-raising side of things is going great these days, but there’s a problem when it’s time to take fully-grown hogs to be processed.
The reason: Social distancing regulations and deep-cleaning procedures tied to COVID-19 have forced many meat processing plants to either slow production or close.
“We were making great strides in the industry. Now we’ve got this bottleneck effect since slaughtering places are running on reduced labor and can’t run at normal capacity,” Hays said. He estimated processing plants are handling 60% of their usual load.
“There’s a shortage of slaughtering places since so many have slowed down or closed,” Hays said. “They don’t have the capacity to take on more hogs. There’s physically no room.”
Bill Crane, the owner of family-run Crane’s Meat Processing in Ashland, Missouri, said keeping up with the demand has been a “full-time job.”
“We’re booked all the way to deer season,” Crane said. “We’re only able to do so much each day.”
Deer season, which begins in November, is hardly too much of a wait for some of Crane’s customers. He said the plant recently booked a meat processing appointment for January.
The plant and its adjacent meat retail service has remained open, but like most businesses, it has implemented new safety procedures because of the pandemic. Crane’s customers are now directed to call half an hour before their visit, so employees can safely deliver their products.
Meat processing plants like Crane’s were declared “essential infrastructure” April 26, when President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep pork plants running in order to strengthen the meat supply chain. The Missouri Pork Association supported this decision in a news release the next day.
“We must stabilize the current plant capacity challenge and overcome other major hurdles facing the nation’s pork production system,” chairman and hog farmer Marcus Belshe said in the release. “Hog values have plummeted, and hog farmers are facing liquidation of their farms without immediate relief.”
The cycle of hog raising — “farrow to finish” as Hays describes it — begins with the birth of pigs. Throughout their life, they are fed a carefully chosen nutritionist-advised diet. Usually around six months of age, they are taken to a processing plant, which creates room for more new pigs back on the farm.
The system usually works so that there is always room on hog farms for each new cycle of pigs with a bit of cushioning for emergencies. But the slowdown in processing due to the COVID-19 crisis means farmers are having to hold on to more of their hogs.
Patchwork Farms, based in Columbia and run through the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, works with farmers and processing plants to keep the industry accessible to smaller businesses. This is necessary because the Missouri hog industry is smaller than that of other livestock like cattle.
Patchworks representative Tim Gibbons estimates there are only around 2,500 hog farmers in Missouri today. He said the current pandemic is highlighting the problems with relying on corporate agriculture versus smaller businesses.
“People are seeing that the centralized food system is not able to react to a crisis like this,” Gibbons said.
He expressed his concern for farmers facing this dilemma.
“Prices being paid to farmers are historically low,” Gibbons said. “In some cases, there are no prices. Farmers can’t find buyers for their livestock.”
Farmers also are struggling to make sure their hogs don’t exceed prime processing weight before they can be taken to a plant. Once hogs exceed 320 pounds, Hays said, they become more difficult to process and pork producers must accept a discount for their pigs.
“We can’t stop them from growing; we can only slow them down, which we wouldn’t normally do, but in a crisis like this, that’s what we’ve had to do,” Hays said.
According to Hays, most farmers have room for about two to three weeks of pig production with little processing. Beyond that, euthanizing is a last resort, which Hays said “no farmer wants to do after spending so much time and resources on raising the animals.”
There is one new option for farmers facing an excess of hogs, according to a news release from Missouri Pork Association Executive Director Don Nikodim.
The association, in partnership with Missouri Farmers Care, is offering pork farmers the opportunity to donate their extra market-ready animals to meat processing plants through their annual Drive to Feed Kids. The program puts farmers in touch with potential processors, and the subsequent pork products are used to provide meals for Missouri families facing food insecurity during the pandemic.
Looking towards the post-pandemic world, Gibbons said he believes a serious change needs to take place to protect smaller hog farms and processing plants and make the industry more “democratic.”
“We need significant policy change for the revitalization of our rural economies,” Gibbons said. “COVID-19 has been highlighting the problems that we have.”
For the future of the hog farming industry, Gibbons suggests supporting antitrust regulations that will stop the use of taxpayer money to fund larger and foreign-owned meat processing corporations. These companies, he said, harm family farms.
There are no exact predictions that can be made as to when things will stabilize in the meat processing industry, but Crane estimates it will be at least a year before things begin to return to normal.
“It could even go on for two years,” Crane said. “It just depends on how long this virus sticks around.”
Hays admitted throughout the pandemic there have been “a lot of unknowns and sleepless nights,” but he remains optimistic about the future. For consumers, he cautioned against panic-buying or stocking up on unnecessary meat products.
“Be mindful,” he said. “Purchase what you need for a few days, and leave the rest for someone else.We’ll get through this.”