How the Public Health Crisis is Hurting Illinois’ Livestock Farmers

Bacon: It’s never really been something the Illinois Pork Producers had to actively promote. In recent years, it’s become so popular you can find it in places you’d have never thought possible, like bacon-flavored mints, bacon-infused vodka and even bacon-shaped Band-Aids.

But like so much else these days, the coronavirus has changed all that.

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Jennifer Tirey, director of the state’s pork association, is readying to launch a “Pork To-Go” campaign to actively encourage people to eat, buy and get pork products like bacon for takeout.

It’s one of the many ways Illinois’ livestock farmers have to adapt as they struggle to cope with effects of COVID-19.

Illinois’ two major beef processing plants had to temporarily close due to worker shortages, cattle and hog farmers are struggling to get good prices when they go to market, and growers don’t know how the federal CARES Act (that stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) will come through for them despite a promised $9.5 billion for livestock, diary and specialty crop farmers.

This was supposed to have been the year for livestock’s resurgence, after two years of foreign trade wars and tariffs.

“We were looking in 2020 that hog farmers were actually going to start seeing some of the positives coming with the Phase 1 China agreement,” she said. “Then COVID-19 happened and turned into another tailspin.”

Illinois is the country’s fourth largest producer of pork, producing 12 million hogs annually. The industry estimates that the country’s hog farmers could see $5 billion in losses this year; Illinois’ pork farmers could see losses of $30 million each month of the coronavirus crisis.

While people may be making sausage, pulled pork or ham at home, it’s not enough to make up for the precipitous drop in orders from hotels and restaurants, closed due to the stay-at-home order.

“How many conventions have you went to where there’s been a huge pan of bacon for your breakfast. Those sorts of product movement is almost zero right now, and so that is really impacting our pork producers’ bottom line at the farm,” she said.

Declined demand is just part of the problem; there are also issues with livestock supply chains.

Earlier this week, a giant pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed indefinitely after a coronavirus outbreak.

“That is obviously not located in Illinois but one thing that we see from closures in our surrounding states is that our pork packers have to take on those hogs and move those to other packing plants. Which means if some of those South Dakota hogs come towards our way that might mean that one of our Illinois pork producers that has a scheduled load of hogs might get their delivery canceled, delayed a week,” Tirey said.  

A week’s delay may not sound like much.

But, as Tirey puts it, “you can’t stop mother nature.”

The pork industry runs on a time sensitive inventory: live pigs.

Sows keep breeding; once the piglets are weaned they are sent to finishing barns, where it takes about six months for them to get to selling weight.

They go to market every six months like clockwork.

If a packing plant closes, if a load is canceled or a delivery is delayed, “those animals keep growing,” Tirey said.

And that creates a bottleneck: 280-pound hogs don’t have anywhere to go, even as the next crop of freshly weaned young pigs are ready to move into the finishing barns.

They can’t be mixed, Tirey said – not only would it endanger the 20-pound pigs, but they’re fed different foods, barns are even kept at different temperatures based on the pigs’ age.

“Anytime something happens at any one plant it can cause a bottleneck at those others,” Tirey said.

While the average market price for a hog is usually $130-$140 a head, Tirey said hog farmers are taking $35 losses per animal when they take their hogs to market – not enough to cover feed costs.

“So they’re deemed an essential workforce, they’re still out there every day raising these animals, making sure that it’s safe, nutritious pork, but they are literally barely keeping their head above water financially if they are at all,” she said.

Illinois has three major pork processing plans (Rantoul Foods in Rantoul, JBS Pork in Beardstown and Smithfield Foods, Inc. in Monmouth), all of which have taken precautionary measures to remain in operation in light of COVID-19.

That hasn’t been the case with Illinois’ two major beef processing plants.

Director of the Illinois Beef Association Jill Johnson said both closed Easter weekend.

“For a combination of workforce issues. Our industry is not immune to the virus so we have workers in packing plants that are coming down with the illness and concerned about coming to work,” Johnson said. “So when the workforce that you’re generally needing to operate at full capacity isn’t able to go to work that then decreases the ability to supply that product.”

The Tyson plant in Rock Island County went back online Wednesday, and the Aurora Packing Company is set to resume operations Thursday, Johnson said.

But, as with hogs, packing plant closures put the squeeze on cattle farmers.

“Cattle that are ready to go to harvest don’t have a place to go, so the producer has to hold on to those cattle. So you’re seeing a part of the supply chain be completely shut off. That increases the financial loss to the cattle farmers. Then there’s concerns about protein reaching our consumers, if you don’t have that packer in the middle able to move those cattle through the supply chain,” she said. “When you have a sudden event like this it sends things off-kilter and so we’re trying to plan as much as we possible can in this real-time crisis scenario.”

The beef industry estimates a $13.6 billion loss nationwide due to COVID-19; 11,000 Illinois jobs are connected to it.

In a letter sent to Illinois Acting Director of Agriculture Jerry Costello on April 9, Illinois Beef Association President Ruel “Buzz” Iliff requested the state recognize and act on the “serious strain that is occurring in our food supply chain.”

“Illinois’ cattle farmers are doing their part to ensure food security by caring for cattle. Providing beef to the consumer is important during this time to illustrate that we won’t go hungry,” he wrote. 

But he said that’s only possible if “workers throughout the supply chain do their parts.”

“We are seeing more examples of workers calling in sick to their packing plant jobs due to fear. We understand fear, but if these essential workers don’t report to their jobs, we will jeopardize our food security, strain the resources needed to keep cattle that otherwise would be harvested, and have a substantial negative impact on the cattle market and the financial health of our state’s cattle farmers.”

Both associations are looking to the CARES Act for assistance.

Tirey said they’re advocating for payments to go directly to farmers, and also for the federal government to buy in bulk; the meat won’t be wasted and protein can be sent to food pantries.

“We need (help) now. We needed it yesterday,” Tirey said.

On Friday, Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth sent a letter asking USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue that the federal government send financial assistance to hog and cattle farmers with a priority on “resource-limited family-sized hog and beef operations who are in the greatest financial jeopardy.”

The letter also calls for the USDA to buy meat, noting that the coronavirus crisis also “has increased pressure on wasteful disposals or culling” – a polite phraseology for animals meeting their demise without being sold as food – “at a time when many families are struggling to afford or access food from lost income and when food pantries are grappling with increased demand.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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