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'We’re just trying to uncover every stone we can': Farmers, states scramble to keep animals in play

As meatpacking plant workers fall ill with COVID-19 and some shutter, state leaders seek creative answers to avoid euthanizing animals.

Hog farmers across South Dakota are facing pressure to offload animals in any way possible because the COVID-19 pandemic has led to closure of meatpacking plants and reduction of processing capacity by 25% or more. (Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)
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ST. PAUL — As the coronavirus hits some meat processing plants and shuts down others, farmers and ranchers are asking for state and federal help with a big question: What should be done with their growing backlog of hogs, turkeys and other animals?

With few alternative markets to send them to and with new pigs or chicks coming in, farmers lack the space to keep mature animals, usually supplied to meat processing plants like clockwork to restock the nation’s food supply.

Some farmers have sold as many animals as they can locally, through often overbooked local butchers. Some are doing what they can do to slow the growth of the animals they do have, hoping meat plants will open soon. And others have had to consider euthanizing animals as a last resort.

Members of Congress from the Midwest are sounding the alarm on behalf of their farmers. They’ve pushed to get federal aid out to farmers, streamline federal response to the growing backlog and help farmers deal with euthanizing animals if needed. And states are allowing small-scale processors to take in more meat and attempt to find other creative solutions to prevent food waste in the face of the pandemic.

But as the closures drag on, farmers are faced with no good options. Their choices will have a direct effect on the choices and prices of meat available to the public.


“These closures, and the resulting uncertainty, force producers to make difficult decisions that could threaten our food supply or result in unnecessary increased costs for consumers,” said U.S. Sens Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mike Lee of Utah, in a co-authored letter to the head of the Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Friday, April 24.

“During this worldwide pandemic when unprecedented numbers of families are standing in food lines, we cannot afford to waste available food resources that could be utilized if only there were available options for processing and packing,” the senators wrote.

The two senators urged the federal officials to ease any restrictions that could help food markets and keep them working for farmers, ranchers and meatpackers.

Late Friday, the Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced it would l aunch a national incident coordination center to directly help farmers and ranchers with nowhere to sell their animals. The center will help producers find new markets, and assist them if they have no choice but to euthanize their animals, it said.

“We will continue to seek solutions to ensure the continuity of operations and return to production as quickly, safely and as health considerations allow at these critical facilities,” it said.

Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota on Sunday, April 26, wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging the Trump administration to issue funding to farmers to help pay for the euthanizing of their herds due to the plant shortages and call on the National Guard to help depopulate the farms.

"The nation’s pork producers are preparing to euthanize millions of healthy animals in the coming weeks, and the beef industry is not far behind," Rounds wrote. "This is shocking, unprecedented and unacceptable for the most powerful nation on earth. We must act immediately to mitigate this disaster."


State officials lead the charge on creative storage ideas

Minnesota, the second-largest pork producing state in the nation, is making its own moves to free up processing capacity and moving to get state funding to farmers, said state Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture along with the state Legislature has put up low-interest disaster loans for producers and funded buying up some of the excess products for Second Harvest Heartland. Wisconsin approved a similar move to fund $1 million in dairy purchases to support dairy farmers and send milk to Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force.

Additionally, the department provided $345,000 in value-added grants to help smaller processors build up the capacity they need to take in additional pigs and keep in close contact with the 20 other large plants in the state.

Farmers that market directly to consumers are selling four to five times more than what they normally would. Smaller locker plants are expanding the capacity to take in more animals. But the 100 or so they can take doesn’t meet the need of farmers who are used to sending out thousands of hogs each day.

The state is also mulling new options, like sending 1,000 hogs a week up to the Iron Range to be processed at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw.

“There just isn’t capacity in Minnesota,” Petersen said. “We’re just trying to uncover every stone we can.”

Petersen said the plant closures could require new homes for 100,000 to 200,000 hogs a week. And he said hogs and chickens have already been euthanized due to the closures.

Minnesota has also issued guidelines for meatpacking facilities that are still open, which include health screenings for workers and visitors, staggering work schedules, thorough disinfecting and ending incentive programs that could encourage sick employees to come to work. And the USDA and CDC have also issued guidance for meatpacking plants continuing their work during the pandemic.


Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry officials said they didn't have the capacity to carry out routine site visits of open plants, but were investigating plants where employees tested positive for COVID-19 and facilities where workers filed complaints.

On Monday, April 27, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the creation of a "pass the pork" program, which would allow hog farmers to donate animals that could otherwise go to waste. Those donations will be sent to local processors and transported to food shelves and food banks. Iowa, the top pork-producer in the nation, is requesting financial donations be made to the Iowa Food Bank Association to cover the cost of processing, storing and delivering the pork to food shelves.

"'Pass the Pork’ is an innovative partnership to put Iowa pork on the tables of families in need of food security while creating a new destination for pork which might otherwise go to waste," Reynolds said in a news release. "I’m grateful to Iowa’s pork producers, processors and others for stepping up to make this possible.”

In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order on April 20 easing overstocking restrictions on pig farmers , giving them temporary flexibility from state and county regulations limiting how many animals they can have within their operations.

Jeremy Fugleberg is an editor who manages coverage of health (NewsMD), history and true crime (The Vault) for Forum News Service, the regional wire service of Forum Communications Co, and is a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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