Virus’s ef­fect felt on the farm

As plants con­tend with out­break, farm­ers face tough de­ci­sions on pigs

Orlando Sentinel - - Business - By Michael Cork­ery and David Yaffe-Bel­lany

One Min­nesota hog farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped car­bon diox­ide through the ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem. An­other farmer has con­sid­ered gassing his an­i­mals af­ter load­ing them into a truck. And a third shot his pigs in the head with a gun. It took him all day.

Coro­n­avirus out­breaks at meat­pack­ing plants across the Mid­west have cre­ated a back­log of pigs that are ready for slaugh­ter but have nowhere to go. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of pigs have grown too large to be slaugh­tered com­mer­cially, forc­ing farm­ers to kill them and dis­pose of their car­casses with­out pro­cess­ing them into food.

And yet, around the coun­try, peo­ple are strug­gling to find enough to eat, lin­ing up at food banks af­ter los­ing their jobs in the eco­nomic fall­out of the pan­demic. Dis­tri­bu­tion is­sues have caused gro­cery stores and fast-food restau­rants to run low on meat.

In Iowa, the na­tion’s largest porkpro­duc­ing state, agri­cul­tural of­fi­cials ex­pect the back­log to reach 600,000 hogs by the end of June. In Min­nesota, an es­ti­mated 90,000 pigs have been killed on farms since the meat plants be­gan clos­ing last month.

The cri­sis mostly af­fects farm­ers with large pork op­er­a­tions who usu­ally send pigs to be slaugh­tered in gi­ant meat­pack­ing plants run by com­pa­nies like Tyson and Smith­field.

But the obli­ga­tion to kill the an­i­mals them­selves and then get rid of the car­casses is wrench­ing.

Last month, Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, RIowa, and other lead­ers in Iowa asked the White House’s coro­n­avirus task force to pro­vide men­tal health re­sources to hog farm­ers, as well as money to com­pen­sate them for the pigs they have had to kill and not turned into meat.

On May 12, a bi­par­ti­san group of 13 se­na­tors sent a let­ter to con­gres­sional lead­ers ask­ing for fund­ing for pig farm­ers and warn­ing that “fail­ure to have a sen­si­ble and or­derly process for thinning the herd will lead to an­i­mal health is­sues, en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, and pork pro­duc­ers go­ing out of busi­ness.”

Last month, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that gave the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture more au­thor­ity to keep plants run­ning. And the fed­eral govern­ment has an­nounced plans to buy $100 mil­lion a month in sur­plus meat.

“The eco­nomic part of it is dam­ag­ing,” said Steve Meyer, a pork in­dus­try an­a­lyst. “But the emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual im­pact of this will have much longer con­se­quences.”

The waste of vi­able live­stock shows how finely cal­i­brated and con­cen­trated the U.S. agri­cul­tural sys­tem has be­come af­ter decades of con­sol­i­da­tion. Mass-pro­duced pigs live on a tight sched­ule. They are raised to grow to more than 300 pounds over roughly six months. Pigs that grow too much above that weight make it un­safe for meat­pack­ing workers to hoist the car­casses along the slaugh­ter line.

As they wait for slaugh­ter­houses to re­open, many farm­ers are look­ing for ways to slow the growth of their pigs, rais­ing barn tem­per­a­tures to make them less in­ter­ested in eat­ing or al­ter­ing feed to make it less ap­pe­tiz­ing.

Many farm­ers are sim­ply run­ning out of space. Right be­hind one gen­er­a­tion of pigs, an­other is al­ways be­ing raised. Older, larger pigs have to be sold to meat­pack­ing plants to make room for younger batches.

One farmer or­dered his staff to give in­jec­tions to preg­nant sows that would cause them to abort baby pigs. Oth­ers have sold live pigs on Face­book and Craigslist.

JENN ACK­ER­MAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Coro­n­avirus out­breaks at meat­pack­ing plants have cre­ated a back­log of pigs for slaugh­ter, but with no fa­cil­i­ties to do it.

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