‘We’re at war with this virus’
Pork producers face dire days in wake of plant closures.
ADRIAN — Anger, frustration, despair, devastation.
Each of these words describe the feelings of area pork producers at the sudden closure and unknown reopening of pork processing plants in Worthington, Windom and Sioux Falls, S.D. within the past eight days due to the spread of COVID-19 among workers at those facilities.
JBS announced Monday it was closing its Worthington facility indefinitely, and Prime Pork in Windom followed suit with suspension of operations Tuesday afternoon, noting an employee there tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
When Smithfield announced the temporary closure of its Sioux Falls plant little more than a week ago, David Bullerman — one of the five brothers in the elder generation of owners of Adrian-based Son-D-Farms — said he wasn’t too concerned because he thought they’d get the plant up and running again within a few days.
Now, though, he’s not just worried. He’s scared and angry.
“We’re at war here with the virus and it’s going to affect everybody,” he said Tuesday, referencing dairy farmers dumping milk, vegetable farmers burying produce and hog farmers facing the unthinkable — euthanizing full-grown market ready hogs because processing plants are shuttered and there’s nowhere to go with them.
Son-D-Farms is one of the county’s largest pork producers, delivering multiple loads of market weight hogs to processors each week. Bullerman said food processors need to not just reopen, but reopen “at full throttle.”
“How do we do that? I don’t know the answer,” he said. “The president, the governor have to declare war on COVID-19.”
Bullerman said when this country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, people didn’t stay at home — they fought back.
“We’re at war here with the virus and it’s affecting everybody,” he said.
While he understands the fear among workers at the plants, Bullerman asked, “Are we going to let a virus beat us? Let a virus starve us?”
“As long as these food plants are shut down, the food costs are going to go up,” he added.
At JBS in Worthington, the workforce processed 20,000 hogs per day, often running six days per week. Smithfield in Sioux Falls was processing approximately 19,500 hogs a day and Prime Pork in Windom, which opened in 2017, processed about 5,100 head daily.
The reality on hog farms around the region is that if there’s no market open to receive them, farmers are going to have to employ euthanasia.
“Here we are, the greatest country in the world. The supply is there — we need to get it from the farm to the plate,” Bullerman said.
He fears the dire circumstances in the agriculture sector will get worse before they get better.
Mike Mouw, a rural Leota hog farmer who serves on the Minnesota Pork Producers Association Board of Directors, expressed similar concerns.
“The conference calls that have been happening in the last week have been distressed calls,” shared Mouw, who with his brother raises hogs through Pipestone System. He and others who get pigs from Pipestone’s sow barns must decide what to do with them when they can’t market the hogs already filling their barns.
Decisions are being made on sow farms to decrease production, including decreasing the number of sows and gilts to be bred. Though sows have a relatively short gestation period — three months, three weeks and three days — the decisions made by producers today will lead to fewer hogs and higher prices for consumers in the months ahead.
“It’s just starting to become real for us now,” Mouw said. “A week from now, I may be saying something different.
“We’re still able to keep pigs in the barn and we’re going to do everything in our power to do that,” he added. “The reality is the longer these plants stay closed, we need to decide what to do with those market weight pigs in the barn.”
While dairy farmers may be dumping milk, at least they still have the cows to keep producing, shared Mouw. Beef producers can reduce energy in an animal’s diet to slow down its weight gain if it’s already at market weight. Pork producers, though, have more challenges.
“Even the diet we’re switching to right now will still have them gaining up to a pound and a half a day,” he said. “It’s really, really hard with a pig to feed them anything that sustains them but keeps them from growing.”
For now, Mouw said they are taking whatever steps they can, short of euthanizing 280- to 300-pound market weight hogs.
“Some people don’t have any options right now,” he said. “Two weeks from now we’re probably going to be in the same boat.”
Getting food processing plants cleaned up and safe for employees — and running at full production — is what producers need most, and the sooner the better.
“Everybody is hurting right now in this ag industry,” Mouw said. “You go from the crop farmer to the dairyman, pork producer and beef producer, everyone is hurting right now. It’s just not good.”
Back at Son-D-Farms, Bullerman said he wants to see National Guard troops deployed to get processing facilities reopened. He has a niece in the Guard and said she’s “more than willing to get these plants going.”
Deploying troops, he said, would also help fill local motel rooms and benefit that sector of the economy.
Until the processors reopen, Bullerman said “there’s no good solution to us as hog farmers.
“This is devastating. We’re going to have to euthanize hogs, and there’s no win in that — that’s huge losses.”
As Mouw reflected on the situation, he said, “It’s in the good Lord’s hands. We want people to stay safe, and we’ve got to try the best we can to get people going.”