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Column: Worthington has been going hog wild since 1928

WORTHINGTON — That swine disease that is killing young pigs by the hundreds of thousands across America is affecting the economy of the local region. It was one year ago that scientists identified the disease. (Of course, they gave it a three-word name to make one more three-letter acronym: porcine epidemic diarrhea: PED.) Employees at Worthington’s JBS plant report shorter shifts and shorter work days. Nearly one generation of pigs has been killed off.

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In January, it was reported the disease has been found in 22 states. It appears the virus affects only young pigs. Exactly what is happening across the Midwest, in particular, is not clear because farms do not report incidents of pig deaths for records. It is probably certain, however, that the price of those pork chops on the grill this summer is going to be higher. Hormel Foods at Austin announced its earnings may be affected — the price of Spam will be going up.

Whether pigs have been a part of life in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa through all the history of settlement cannot be known. Did those Civil War veterans bring pigs with them when they came to Minnesota? By 1928 — that’s 86 years ago — Worthington was identified as a center for hog production in the United States. It is thought there were more pigs than people.

The year 1928 is noted because this was when Worthington first was attached to the chain of providing pork for America.

Estherville, Iowa, and Worthington were in an unreported competition for an expansion of the John Morrell & Co. packing plant at Sioux Falls. Worthington won. Worthington was judged the best “piggy town.”

Worthington-area’s little piggies were going to market. Morrell reported it would build a “permanent assembly station” along First Avenue at Worthington just east of Worthington’s stockyards — east of the 12th Street crossing.

The development at Worthington was Morrell’s response to the trucking industry that also was emerging through the local area. Ford introduced its Model A in 1927. Hogs by the truck load were now — 1928 — rolling daily to Sioux Falls along the route of old Highway 16. This made a problem for Morrell. There was no predicting how many trucks would arrive at Sioux Falls on a given day. There might be 20, there might be none. It was hard to keep a production line moving.

This is where Worthington came in the picture. Morrell would build a “concentration yard” at Worthington. Jack Mitchell of Adrian was named manager.

Hog producers were urged to direct their trucks to Worthington’s First Avenue, where there would be a lineup of new, heavy duty scales to weigh incoming pigs, a lineup of new loading chutes and a bigger stockyard. Morrell also planned to build a small office building.

The point of the development was to collect pigs at one place and to load the pigs into railroad stock cars. Morrell guessed (correctly) that on some days there would be as many as two train loads of pigs rolling out of Worthington to Sioux Falls.

The link to Morrell was the beginning of Worthington’s significant tie to hog production in America. Just as Morrell determined Worthington was a “hog center” in 1928, so, in the passing of time, Armour came to the same conclusion. It was then that Worthington came to have its Armour pork plant that became Swift, which became JBS. JBS USA now employs more than 85,000 people through North America and Australia — the workers at Worthington are part of that big crew. JBS states it is “the largest protein processor in the world” with 140 production facilities, including its plant on Worthington’s east side. JBS USA is a branch of JBS SA (South America), a multi-national corporation headquartered in Brazil.

Just now we’ve got trouble, right here in River City. Those little pigs are dying by the tens of thousands. New viruses among pigs are a familiar story, of course. Veterinarians and researchers have been at work on PED. There will be a vaccine. A big problem will be getting the vaccine into large-scale production and then getting it distributed through all of the United States.

Hogs and Worthington. They have been paired for a century.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.