After the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic created in the pork industry, including temporary processing plant closures, officials believe the industry has bounced back. (Kate McGillen/southernminn.com)

Despite the challenges pork producers have faced in the last year, with processing plants facing temporary closures and decreased production due to COVID-19, one thing that Dave Preisler says has remained constant was the production of an affordable and safe source of protein for customers, something producers will continue to do.

Overall, Preisler, Minnesota Pork Board and Minnesota Pork Producers Association CEO who lives in Le Sueur County, feels the pork industry has bounced back and that hog prices are favorable compared to past prices. While packing plants also experienced challenges last spring with COVID, Preisler says those numbers have dwindled.

Pork is a vital part of Minnesota’s economy. The state’s home to more than 3,000 pig farms, and ranks second in value and number of market pigs raised. This year, Preisler says, the industry will generate $3 billion in farm income. Looking at various agriculture products raised in Minnesota ranked in value, pigs are third, followed by cattle, milk and poultry. Corn and soybeans are ranked in the first and second spots, respectively.

The MN Pork Board finances research that’s useful for pork producers and hog farmers. Preisler said it also promotes the product, pork industry and provides continuing education for hog farmers. The MN Pork Producers Association provides public policy and advocacy on behalf of hog farmers. Both organizations, Preisler says, represent the interest of pork producers and promote the industry as a whole.

Production remains constant

Local producer Tom Sammon, of southwest Faribault, agrees that although there were definitely challenges in the last 12 months, the supply to the customer was almost non-interrupted.

“The whole safety issues and standards we produced pork by didn’t change,” said Sammon. “There’s no variation, no issues and the pigs only get antibiotics when they are sick. We raise crops as well and go through the whole cycle of producing pork, using their manure as ‘organic fertilizer’ on the crops.”

Sammon, who has been farming for more than 50 years, says his family was lucky. They didn’t have to euthanize any pigs last year, though there were other producers that did.

“We did things to slow down their growth and did some minor tweaking of things to get through the issue,” said Sammon. “We were very fortunate.”

In southeastern Minnesota, most pigs are shipped to processing plants in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. Direct impacts on farms depended on the packing company that individual farm was selling to. The Hormel Plant in Austin, Preisler said, slowed down last spring, but never shut down completely. That wasn’t the case for all plants. The Smithfield Plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed for a month.

That caused backups for farmers with pigs ready for processing and an overwhelming number of pigs who grew too large to be processed, forcing them to be euthanized.

Farmers who euthanized their pigs when plants were shut down due to COVID got a hand from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Hog Depopulation Cost-Share Program, which reimbursed farmers for the cost of putting pigs down and helped with disposal. While helpful, the program did not reimburse producers for the value of the animal they would have originally from processors.

Though not every farm needed to put animals down, Preisler said many farms tried to slow the growth of pigs by changing their diets and tried to hold them until things returned to normal. About 90% of the pigs went to rendering plants, for use in pet food and fertilizer.

Though there may have been more euthanized, Preisler estimates that 300,500 pigs were entered into the program. That’s a fraction of the 17 million pigs Minnesota producers raise in one year.

The pork industry has bounced back, but in some ways the industry is still recovering. While the financial impact differed from farm to farm depending on the marketing decisions they had to make, the industry is seeing profitability now. Preisler said it looks like that will be the case now for the next several months, up to a year.

“That will be very helpful in order to build back balance sheets for farms,” added Preisler.

From a packing plant standpoint, Preisler feels the temporary closures of the plants helped improve mitigation strategies.

“They learned a lot about what really worked and what didn’t from a standpoint of keeping folks healthy,” said Preisler. “That’s why you did see masks, face shields and also Plexiglas put up within the plant to separate folks.”

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