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Lawmakers hear of trouble facing state’s hog farmers

The state’s head veterinarian told lawmakers Tuesday that Minnesota hog farmers face mounting pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that, in a best-case scenario, the U.S. will have a backlog of 4.3 million hogs by June 8 because there will be no place to process them.

Plants around the Midwest, including in Worthington, have had to temporarily suspend operations because of outbreaks at their facilities and forcing some farmers to euthanize their animals

A group of “very smart veterinarians” put together that projection assuming all the plants currently shut down by the coronavirus pandemic reopen May 18 and are back up to 75% capacity by June 1, State Veterinarian Beth Thompson told the House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division during a remote hearing.

“Our farmers, producers, and processors have been put in an extremely difficult position as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin), the division chair, said in a statement. “All of us are heartbroken by the stories we are hearing from our neighbors in the agriculture community. The Legislature has taken concrete steps to provide help, and we are committed to doing even more to help our neighbors navigate the evolving challenges created by this unprecedented public health crisis.”

Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Tim Walz are working together to put a lot of pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a monumental problem and so we are pushing the USDA for more and more resources and dollars,” Petersen said, adding that Iowa just submitted a plan to the federal government asking for $35 million per week to help the hog industry in that state. Minnesota is the country’s second largest hog-producer — behind Iowa.

The week beginning April 13 saw a processing shortfall of almost 300 hogs, and the backlog has been growing with each week, Thompson said. “My heart is going out to hog producers and other producers in the state of Minnesota,” she said.

Petersen said it’s been an “amazingly tough time” since the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. shut down earlier this month. Then the JBS plant closed in Worthington, and almost half the hogs in Minnesota needed to find a new home, he said.

One bright spot is Hormel Food’s Austin plant, which is still running well and taking extra hogs on Saturdays, and the Comfrey Farm Prime Pork plant in Windom has restarted and may take extra hogs on Saturdays, too, he said.

Two Jennie-O turkey processing plants in Willmar closed after workers tested positive for coronavirus, and last night a Melrose turkey plant was shuttered, too.

“That is also going to create a big issue,” Petersen said.

The Agriculture Department is doing everything it can to send pigs to local processing plants, but people are also buying meat directly from local farmers at four to five times the normal rate, he said.

The department is working with butchers who want to process more and redirecting livestock to places like Louisiana or Amish communities.

Cattle can be held longer and turned out to pastures, but pigs, turkeys and chickens can only be held about a month before they must be euthanized.

Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) asked whether the production projections have been shared with the USDA and what its reaction was.

“I have shared this quite widely, specifically within USDA,” Thompson said. “I have not heard anything formally… back from the USDA and that’s part of the frustration.”

Lueck said he’s also talked to federal legislative leaders but, “I’m not sure they fully grasp where we’re at. …It’s gonna be a train wreck for us if we don’t get this thing back in the box,” he said.

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