Hog Farmers Persevering Through Challenging Times

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October means cooler temperatures, pumpkin patches and Halloween, but U.S. pork producers know it better as National Pork Month. To celebrate the month-long holiday, HOTH is turning over its authorship to guest hosts to offer unique perspectives and experiences in our sector. This inaugural HOTH is penned by Illinois Pork Producers Association Executive Director Jennifer Tirey.

What do you love about representing the industry?

Working for the Illinois Pork Producers Association is so much more than a job. It has become a place that I have built lifelong friendships. The hog farmers I represent are some of the hardest working individuals I have ever met, and their passion and resilience are why I love representing this industry.

What challenges have farmers in Illinois faced this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

As a result of the COVID pandemic, Illinois pork producers were hit very hard financially. The Coronavirus Assistance Program, the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Industry Disaster Loans were greatly appreciated, but they have not made any of my producers whole. After more than two years at the tip of the trade retaliation spear, U.S. pork producers came into 2020 forecasted to make $10 profit on every hog. That is, until COVID-19 hit. Hog farmers have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID and are forecasted to lose an estimated $5 billion this year.

As COVID spread, harvest facilities closed or dramatically reduced capacity, creating a lasting back-up of millions of hogs on farms across our country. Three large processors in Illinois were directly impacted where many of our farmers shipped their pigs. This forced farmers to get creative so they could hold their animals longer on farms. Our farmers also got creative with their marketing efforts, selling hogs straight off the farm to individual consumers, and shipping pigs all over the country to new destinations for below market value and sometimes nearly free. Illinois farmers pivoted very quickly so that they did not have to make the difficult choice that many of their fellow hog farmers in surrounding states had to when forced to put down an animal they had raised to be a protein source for consumers.

The Illinois Pork Producers Association continues to work with the National Pork Producers Council to ensure that additional federal assistance is available to preserve the livelihoods of our hog farmers across the state. Our producers have also met with members of our Illinois congressional delegation to keep them updated on the issues impacting our industry.

What help can Congress provide to ensure U.S. hog farmers weather the COVID-19 crisis?  

Illinois hog farmers continue to support NPPC’s efforts in urging Congress to include the following in the next COVID-relief package:

  • compensation for the lost value of euthanized and donated hogs, including related costs and disposal.
  • additional direct payments to hog farmers without restrictions.
  • additional funding for animal health surveillance and laboratories, which have appropriately assisted and shared resources with their public health partners during the COVID crisis.
  • modification of the Commodity Credit Corporation charter so a pandemic-driven national emergency qualifies for USDA funding.
  • enhancements to the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure eligibility for farmers and ranchers who are sole proprietors.

Another top priority for hog farmers across the U.S. is ensuring African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases don’t enter our country. What needs to be done to keep U.S. agriculture safe?

Agricultural inspectors are our first line of defense to ensure our nation’s $1 trillion agriculture sector is safe. U.S. pork producers are already suffering considerable losses due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. If ASF or another foreign animal disease entered our country, the results would be catastrophic.

We need to look no further than Germany, which has nearly 50 cases of ASF in wild boars and that number keeps growing daily. The repercussions have been swift and significant, with German pork exports suspended to a number of its biggest markets. The swine-only disease continues to spread in parts of Europe and Asia. In China, which has been hit particularly hard, it’s estimated that the number of sows the country has lost to ASF is more than the entire U.S. sow herd. We can’t let our guard down.

U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) agriculture inspections at U.S. ports of entry are funded by Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program user fees. However, due to the COVID-related economic downturn and travel restrictions, there has been an unprecedented and dangerous drop in the collection of these user fees. Without a prompt resolution, there will be an estimated $630 million shortfall in funding through the end of fiscal year 2021. It is absolutely essential that this funding shortfall be addressed.

NPPC is urging Congress to ensure USDA and BCBP have the full funding to prevent the spread of foreign animal diseases to the United States and that Congress appropriate funding for 720 new agricultural inspectors at land, air and sea ports.

In Illinois specifically, our association has been working with producers to assist them in developing their secure pork supply plans, updating their premise identification information with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and educating external stakeholders about our industry so they are well prepared in advance if a foreign animal disease outbreak ever occurred in our country.

On a lighter note, how do you plan to celebrate National Pork Month?

Here at Illinois Pork, every month is pork month for us. However, as we kick off the official start to National Pork Month, we are launching farmer gratitude programs across the state to recognize the efforts of our farmers and educate consumers on how farmers safely raise our food. We celebrated everyone’s favorite pork product, bacon, by donating 50 boxes of stable-ready bacon to seven food pantries across the state and coordinating the first ever bacon drone delivery outside of Galesburg on Oct. 1.

Consumers can also look for specials and recipe ideas at grocery stores across the state and we will continue to highlight delicious pork menu items at restaurants throughout Illinois.

The pandemic has been a challenge, but our farmers have proven once again how resilient they are, even when faced with unprecedented challenges – they persevere.