RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to just one of the many unintended consequences of the pandemic. Pork is getting more expensive. Meat processing plants are being shut down because some meatpackers have been getting ill. With some plants closed and others running at reduced capacity and nowhere to safely put their pigs, farmers are facing a very difficult decision. NPR's Tim Mak investigates an unprecedented crisis on American hog farms.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Third-generation farmer Chad Leman's place is about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. We're standing outside one of his barns looking at dozens of healthy, active and large pigs.
CHAD LEMAN: These pigs should be gone. This building should be completely washed, disinfected and ready for baby pigs to come in.
MAK: A lot of Americans are worried about not being able to get pork at the supermarket. But farmers like Leman worry about having way too many pigs. Leman is making his rounds on the farm, driving around in his truck, a 2006 Dodge Ram. Leman, also a board member of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, was frank about the difficulties ahead.
LEMAN: Nationwide, as an industry, we're thinking right now, given what we know, somewhere between five and 10 million.
MAK: That's between five and 10 million pigs, animals that farmers like Chad Leman will need to euthanize and dispose of in coming months. To understand the issues with the pork supply chain, we have to dive deep into how hogs are produced and processed.
LEMAN: Much of America believes their food originates in a grocery store. They don't realize that this protein is being grown out here in the country, farmers that have done this for many years oftentimes multigenerational families.
MAK: Before the coronavirus crisis, pork production was a finely tuned, just-in-time supply chain. Pork is uniquely vulnerable to a bottleneck because pigs can't easily be held for more than six months after birth. Any longer and the hogs grow too large - more than 300 pounds and processors won't buy them.
HEATHER HILL: The system is built for certain size pigs to go to the processor and to be in the barns.
MAK: That's Heather Hill, another multigenerational hog farmer. She lives in Greenfield, Ind.
HILL: Even by tweaking their diets and trying to slow down how fast they're growing, the pigs are still going to continue to get bigger.
MAK: She and her husband sell 30,000 pigs to market per year and typically send 500 to 600 pigs to slaughter each week. But for now, they're holding more pigs on the farm than they typically do.
HILL: So each load of pigs we can't sell, it definitely creates a domino effect where we have a backlog of pigs, if you will.
MAK: The pigs are being held back because meatpacking plants are hobbled by the coronavirus crisis. Jayson Lusk is the head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University.
JAYSON LUSK: An important thing to recognize is the concentrated nature of the meatpacking sector. The 15 largest pork packing plants process 60% of all hogs in this country. And in times like this, it means that if one of those packing plants go down, it's a nontrivial share of our total production.
MAK: But it's not just one plant. According to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network, three meatpacking plants and five processed-food plants are currently closed because more than 13,000 meatpacking and food processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Lusk explains that at the current rate of diminished pork processing capacity, the numbers add up quick.
LUSK: Yeah. So if you take 200,000 hogs a day that are being left on the farm and you continue that on for a week, then that's a million extra pigs that would have gone to market but instead are staying on the farm for just one week of 40% reduced capacity.
MAK: Most farmers don't want to talk about the prospect of euthanizing their pigs. We're back on Chad Leman's farm in Illinois following his morning routine.
LEMAN: What the challenge has become now is that we didn't realize how long these plants were going to be down. And so now the problem is going to linger for far longer than we thought. I mean, I think we're going to have shipping disruptions now till at least July or August.
MAK: The tragedy of euthanizing millions of pigs is compounded by the fact that other parts of America face unemployment, poverty and hunger. But without meat processing, you can't turn pigs into pork.
LEMAN: There's conversations going on every day to figure out, OK, how can we most efficiently and humanely do this? This is not euthanizing half a dozen animals. This is thousands and millions of animals. So this is just a - this is just an unforeseen calamity, really.
MAK: And beyond just killing the hogs, there's an open question about what to do with the many, many 300-pound carcasses. The large numbers prevent easy solutions, like giving away the pigs to food pantries for which they would have to go through processing plants. One possibility is the disposal of carcasses in massive landfills. And to make matters worse, this weekend, a polar vortex swept through the Midwest, freezing some of Leman's emerging crop of soybeans, which he uses to feed pigs. This means he'll have to replant acres and acres of soybeans, even as he deals with the pork crisis.
LEMAN: My wife and I have a longstanding kind of joke between us. And she'll say, well, Chad, you know it could be worse. And I say, I know, but it could be better.
MAK: Leman says that it's in the nature of a farmer to be resilient. Tim Mak, NPR News, Eureka, Ill.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "LOST CHILD")
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