SUMNER — It’s astonishing how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the value and vulnerability of American’s food-to-table supply chain.
“Food security is important in this country. We have learned that the past few weeks,” said Nebraska Pork Producers Association Executive Director Al Juhnke.
He said the 1,500 pork producers in Nebraska range from husband-wife businesses to companies with 1,000 employees. In a normal May, producers would send 365,000 finished market hogs to processing plants.
NPPA President-elect Shana Beattie of Sumner said trade challenges and plentiful supplies the past two years resulted in break-even economics, at best, for pork producers. “Projections for 2020 were looking encouraging for potential profit, but COVID changed that quickly,” she added.
The setback has been the spread of the coronavirus through processing plants and the host communities.
Plants temporarily have closed for sanitizing and many now have resumed operations at less than full capacity. Meanwhile, other links in the supply chain remain at full production.
Juhnke said it takes 10 months from breeding a sow to having a finished hog, “so that’s why it’s hard to slow down a system.”
He said Nebraska’s three pork processing plants — Smithfield at Crete, Tyson at Madison and WholeStone Farms at Fremont — have done deep cleaning, installed plastic barriers between work spaces and now require workers to wear personal protective equipment.
Juhnke estimated that the Smithfield and Tyson plants are at 30 percent-50 percent of capacity, and said the Fremont plant reported no slowdown this week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that the following pork processing plants resumed some operations this week: Tyson at Perry and Waterloo, Iowa, and Logansport, Ind.; JBS at Worthington, Minn.; and Smithfield at Monmouth, Ill., Sioux Falls, S.D., and Delphi, Ind.
“Our goals are to keep those plants open and the employees safe,” Juhnke said. “We want to make sure they feel good about being at work and are not fearful.”
Ramping up to production capacity will take time as some workers continue to recover from COVID-19 and others are afraid of getting ill. Juhnke said plants now may be safer than other places in the communities that have processing plants.
Another important step is providing workers with health safety information in their primary languages instead of English only. “That was maybe too slow to come,” Juhnke acknowledged.
Beattie wants consumers to know there is a plentiful supply of pork.
“Yes, there are some logistics issues with the slowdown of processing and distribution,” she said. “I do not see the need for consumers to overstock on their food. This is what causes the meat cases to be empty.”
The processing plant issues came on the heels of food service industry closures.
“For example, a majority of the bacon is sold through some type of food service,” Beattie said. “With no restaurants allowed inside dining, little hotel-related travel, and school and university food services closed, the demand for bacon isn’t there.”
Demand also declined for higher end cuts of pork and beef when high-end restaurants closed.
Beattie, who also is a beef producer, added, “Who wants to get filet mignon to go?”
She said the pork industry has worked for decades to promote and find demand for every cut of pork.
“We just want to continue to raise pork to fill the demands in grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, schools and many export nations, who consume 25 percent of our pork,” Beattie said.
Juhnke said the issues destructive to the supply-demand system will pass, “but it’s going to take some time.” He thinks pork processing rates still may not be at 100 percent by August or September, especially if some workers decide to look for different jobs.
Beattie said years of little, if any, profits mean it will be difficult for some pork producers and other farmers to survive.
Meanwhile, the most difficult decision — euthanizing pigs that have no where to go — is just around the corner in Nebraska. Juhnke said it’s already happening in other states with plants that closed earlier.
“Livestock animals are bred to grow weight. We can slow them down with rations or heating up the barn ... but they still will gain 2 pounds a day, at least,” he said about the limited alternatives.
He knows of producers who have turned pigs into pastures or put them in temporary buildings. “They’re hoping to get a load in (to a plant) in the next couple of weeks. But slowly, some are realizing they won’t get those loads,” Juhnke said.
Nationwide, 2.5 million market hogs are processed each week, which would be 25 million during a 10-week period. Juhnke said 8.5 million hogs may be euthanized by late July.
The Nebraska number could be 100,000 pigs a month.
“It’s a shame. That’s good food that is not going to be processed,” he said.
“Farmers are going to have to make unpopular, unhappy, unplanned-for decisions,” Juhnke said. “Nobody is prepared to put down animals that are healthy ... We’re hoping some people won’t have to face that, but everyone should be planning in case that day comes and start working with their veterinarian.”
Producers’ other long-term decisions may be to not breed some sows, cull 5 percent-10 percent from the herd or euthanize smaller pigs, he added.
There may be federal assistance to help with disposal costs.
Juhnke said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds that could provide up to $25,000 to help small- and medium-sized pork operations.
He hopes to see a decision soon on the state’s application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for human health issue aid similar to what was received for livestock — mostly cattle — disposal after the March 2019 floods.
“We’re trying to keep as many of these things away from the farm as much as possible,” Juhnke said about possible centralized pig disposal sites.
Other government help includes millions of USDA funds earmarked to purchase meat and other farm commodities for distribution to food banks, meal programs and other nonprofit activities.
Beattie said pork producers are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program.
Juhnke said there may be a fourth round of COVID-19 funding and it’s hoped per-animal compensation for livestock producers will be included. That help is months away.
A report released Thursday by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research and Nebraska Business Forecast Council estimates Nebraska farm income will be down 22.6 percent in 2020 and government payments could equal half of ag producers’ incomes.
“We’re concerned about all of the producers, especially the smaller ones who don’t have as many resources” to survive the economic storm, Juhnke said.
Burgeoning emotional stress in farm country is another concern. He said farmers need to remember it’s important to talk to other people and that mental health resources are available.
“We don’t want people to think the farm would be better without them,” Juhnke said. “That is never the case.”