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‘What do you do with these pigs?’ Inside Missouri hog farmers’ struggles during coronavirus

Todd Hays is a sixth-generation farmer, orchestrating the care and production of soybeans, corn, and about 600 pigs. He’s used to making tough decisions and preparing for the unknown. 

But this, a global health crisis that took all facets of the world by storm, is uncharted territory. It’s thrown a wrench into a delicate food supply chain. Processing plants have closed or slowed down operations; shuttered restaurants and schools result in a decrease in demand and price for pork, in particular. 

So hog farmers like Hays are left with a backlog of growing swine and a nearly impossible question: “What do you do with these pigs?” 

“We didn’t know four months ago that this would be happening like this. Nobody could foresee this,” Hays, vice president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, told The Missouri Times. “We have an oversupply of pigs and no place to go.” 

“For the consumer, it’s harder to find good products, and it’s tough on the farmers out here raising the pigs. What’s our answer? What do we do while continuing to be humane and caring for our animals?”

Todd Hays is a sixth-generation farmer, orchestrating the care of about 600 pigs. (PROVIDED)

Hog farmers already operate in a cyclically tight food supply chain. While some processing plants have closed or altered operations, others have seen more pigs coming in than they could kill. Pigs are turned away, and plants are cutting back on the scheduling of loads to be delivered. 

“We’ve lost about 25 percent of slaughter capacity in the nation. But we still have just as many pigs coming to market each day as we did several weeks ago,” Hays said. 

“Farmers are faced with a tough decision about what to do. They have limited places to go — if any. They still have their animals they care for on their farms that are having newborn piglets that will have to go somewhere. We’re going to take care of them and feed them and make sure they have everything they need to be healthy and continue to grow. But when they get to a certain size, packing houses won’t want the pigs because they’ll be too big.” 

Missouri is home to about 2,700 hog farms, raising more than 3.1 million pigs, according to 2017 census data

There are approximately 175 meat processors of all types across Missouri, ranging from small operations to larger facilities such as Triumph, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Some plants have shuttered completely; others have reduced up to 50 percent of its capacity while still remaining open, an Agriculture spokeswoman told The Missouri Times.

Missouri processes about 30,000 pigs a day, Missouri Agriculture Director Chris Chinn told The Missouri Times. 

Agriculture Director Chris Chinn, a hog farmer said the closing of processors is creating a backlog for Missouri hog farmers. (DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE)

Chinn, a fifth-generation farmer who has a farrow-to-finish hog operation, said the biggest challenge for Missouri farmers has been finding the space to hold animals longer than otherwise planned — as well as going without a paycheck.

“We had just enough processing space in this country right now for the number of animals being raised,” Chinn said. “So for any of the packing facilities to reduce the number of animals they’re able to process on a daily basis, it backs up the animals on the farm. This creates a challenge for the farmer because they have new pigs being born every day. When it’s time to wean those new pigs from their mothers, they need to have another barn to go to.” 

“When one of [the processors] goes to half-capacity, it backs up the animals on the farm.” 

For now, many farmers are trying to sell swine at lighter weights. And they’re adjusting the pigs’ diet, balancing nutrition with an attempt to block the animals from gaining much weight. 

But there is hope on the horizon. Missouri began to reopen last week, meaning restaurants that adjusted service while dining rooms remained closed, can begin to slowly welcome patrons inside again. And President Donald Trump signed an executive order, citing the Defense Production Act, instructing the Agriculture secretary to “ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA.” 

Missouri’s livestock producers and food processing facilities are set to get a financial break thanks to state Sen. Justin Brown. The Republican from Rolla was able to attach a provision to the recently-passed state budget allocating $20 million of federal coronavirus relief funding to increase processing capacity and enhance worker safety, among other things. 

“Agriculture and food production are an important element of America’s critical infrastructure,” Brown said. “It’s imperative that we provide the resources necessary to keep these facilities open and our food supply secure. This funding will allow producers and processors to adapt to the rapidly evolving coronavirus crisis.” 

But as the coronavirus crisis continues, Hays predicts: “There will be some family farms exiting the industry as this is costing more financially then they can handle.” 

“As we lose more family farmers, we have fewer people that are doing it and fewer families in the rural areas providing things for the rural areas,” such as restaurants and other services, Hays said.

“This pandemic and crisis that we’re all in, we’re trying to figure it all out,” Hays said. “We’ll come through it. There will be some pains along the way and a lot of tough decisions, but that’s what we do, and why we’re in this industry. There are some tough decisions from time to time on the farm.” 

Farmers in other states have had to come to grips with the heartwrenching task of euthanizing pigs, particularly babies, given the meatpacking backlog. But Missouri farmers are not quite there, Chinn said. 

“For now, our farmers are making do and doing okay,” Chinn said. “However, for every day our processors nationwide stay closed or at reduced capacity, that impacts our Missouri farms.” 

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.