03:43 - Source: CNN
Hog farmer: I never imagined having to do this
CNN  — 

“The day I see the pigs euthanized on my yard will be one of the saddest days I ever see.”

Hog farmer Chad Lubben said he doesn’t even want to think about the prospect of putting down hundreds of the animals he’s cared for in his Edgerton, Minnesota, barn – which is why he, like a growing number of other producers, listed his pigs at fire-sale prices on Craigslist.

But the closure of meat-packing plants across the country due to Covid-19 has left farmers searching for any alternative to a fate that, for many of them, is becoming inevitable: livestock euthanization.

Animals that should have been brought to market are instead piling up in barns and pastures – and with processing facilities sitting idle, farmers often have nowhere to put their livestock to make room for the next generation. Some, like Lubben, have turned to Craigslist and social media recently in a desperate attempt to offload animals they may otherwise have to euthanize.

“In my opinion, it’s absolutely wasteful,” Lubben told CNN of the thousands of pigs facing euthanization in the days ahead. “We’ve got people starving in the world, in the US, in the Midwest here, and even locally.”

Lubben posted a Craigslist ad on Tuesday offering his full-grown hogs for $80 each – an effort, he said, to get as many animals as possible off his farm before May 23. That’s when 2,400 new pigs will arrive, requiring the space occupied by hogs that will need to be sold or put down by then.

“I’m losing $70 a pig right now, but I figure if I can make $80, at least it’s better than zero when it comes to euthanization,” he said.

Before the nearby JBS pork plant shut its doors on April 21 because dozens of employees tested positive for coronavirus, Lubben said he managed to get roughly a third of his stock to market. But the fate of his remaining 1,600 pigs remains unclear; while the plant partially reopened on Wednesday for the sole purpose of euthanizing excess hogs, Lubben said he would still need to pay to transport his pigs to the facility to be put down, which he considers a last resort. He expects to sell fewer than 200 of the pigs online.

“There’s a lot of people that are against us farmers having pigs in confinement. We care for the pigs, we do the best we can, we give them the best livelihood we can. Their sole purpose in life is just to feed other people,” Lubben said. “You watch their mission be completely terminated by euthanization and getting buried and not fulfilling what they’re supposed to do. It’s just a waste, absolutely a waste.”

Other farmers trying to offload their livestock on Craigslist offered animals they’ve invested in at a loss or even for free, scrambling to avoid euthanization. Brian Sudbeck, a Nebraska cattle and hog farmer who also listed pigs for sale, said independent family farms and ranches like his “have been really taking it on the chin.” He suggested the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has not been helpful to farmers struggling with extra animals.

“I currently reached out with an ad online to try to find a place for some market-ready hogs to go due to the situation,” Sudbeck told CNN in an email. “I found myself running out of options and made a half dozen phone calls to the USDA FSIS Department regarding laws on butchering animals just to be absolutely insulted and told to ‘call around to see if any petting zoos are looking for animals?’”

Lubben said fellow pork farmers have been invoking a saying these days as they face an economic disaster, and potentially even ruin: “No money, no farmers, no food.”

Strain on the industry

Jim Monroe, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said the online ads are not typical for his industry.

“It’s definitely an indication of the animal welfare crisis faced by our producers,” he said. “It’s indicative of the desperation they feel.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s executive order last week aimed at keeping meat-processing plants functional, a number of major facilities remain shuttered or are operating at reduced capacity. In a pair of letters to governors and industry stakeholders on Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said USDA was asking indefinitely-closed plants to submit a written plan for following the administration’s new safety guidelines – but the department is not forcing any facilities to fire up their machines.

Monroe said pork producers are asking USDA to help pay for the pigs they will be forced to put down, in addition to their separate push for the department to remove caps on stimulus payments they say will stop support from reaching many farmers.

“We need compensation for hogs that farmers have to euthanize, as well as costs, funds to cover the costs of depopulation and disposal,” Monroe said.

USDA does not presently have the authority to indemnify farmers for healthy animals they have to euthanize, a spokesperson noted, but farmers can access limited payments from the department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for the disposal of carcasses from animals they’ve had to put down due to coronavirus complications.

“While producers and processors are doing everything they can to maintain full continuity of the supply chain, there is no denying there has been disruption over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, because of this, some animals may need to be depopulated,” the spokesperson told CNN.

The spokesperson said empty shelves at grocery stores “are a demand issue, not a supply issue,” noting meat is processed differently for restaurants and schools – where demand has plummeted – than for grocery stores, where demand remains robust.

Faced with potential shortages, however, grocery stores from Kroger to Costco have imposed limits on how much beef, pork and poultry their customers can buy at one time. The fast food chain Wendy’s has experienced beef supply problems that analysts say pulled hamburgers off the menu at one in five of their stores.

Those shortages have created a jarring split screen with the mass euthanizations farmers at the other end of the supply chain are starting to execute.

Allen Harim Foods, a chicken company, said last month that it would euthanize 2 million chickens in flocks across Maryland and Delaware because not enough workers were showing up at plants to process the poultry. In Minnesota, JBS, a major meat and poultry processor, said its Worthington facility would this week begin to euthanize as many 13,000 hogs per day.

An animal welfare crisis

Candace Croney, director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University, said all livestock-based industries will face pressure from coronavirus-related plant closures – but some will suffer more significantly than others.

“The difference is how much time people have as a function of the different types of animal groups they’re working with,” Croney said.

“If you look at chickens, it takes six weeks to get them to market, so you’ve got a really short window of time in order to get those birds out the door. And if you are trying to hold onto them for a little bit extra, your wiggle room is much less than, for instance, people that are working with beef cattle.”

Croney said farmers have virtually no alternatives to euthanization, in many cases, because of the welfare problems created by overcrowding. Those include the inability of animals to access food or water in packed barns, where they may not even have space to lie down or rest, and the possibility that animals competing for resources in such close quarters could become aggressive with each other.

“Just from a practical standpoint, this is such a devastating decision to make emotionally, forget financially,” Croney said. “It goes against the ethics that anybody involved with farming on any level has.”

Meanwhile meat-packing plants, which will need to reopen broadly for the overcrowding problems to subside, are walking a tightrope balancing worker safety with pressure to process food. With a workforce that often labors in close proximity to each other, the meat-processing industry has been pummeled by Covid-19 across dozens of facilities.

At the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, which reopened on April 24 after a temporary closure, seven employees have died and 280 have tested positive for the virus. Nearly 400 workers have tested positive for coronavirus at the Triumph Foods pork plant in Buchanan County, Missouri, as of this week. And the governor of South Dakota said on Wednesday to expect a spike in the state’s number of cases due to a round of testing at the recently-reopened Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Union leaders have said meat-packing employees have not yet received adequate personal protective equipment and can be placed in serious danger if they are forced back on the line before plants have taken the steps necessary to protect workers.

Lubben, the farmer who is trying to sell his pigs on Craigslist, and meat producers like him are warning of dire consequences for the industry if plants don’t reopen, despite the dangers.

“I understand these meat-packing plants were hodgepodges for coronavirus, but it’s part of the food chain. We’ve got to keep the food chain going,” he said. “We just disturbed the food chain, and it’s going to take months, maybe even years, to get back to where we’re supposed to be.”