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Indiana Public Radio, a listener-supported service of Ball State University

Meatpacking Plant Closures Hurting Some Indiana Pig Farmers

By Annacaroline Caruso, IPB News | Published on in Agriculture, Business, Health
(Photo: ELISSA NADWORNY / NPR)

Two Indiana meat processing plants announced this week they are suspending operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.  At Tyson Foods in Logansport, more than 100 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.  And in Delphi, the Indiana Packers Corporation announced Friday that it will suspend operations there.  Together, the closures make up a majority of pork processing capability in Indiana.

And that has Indiana pork farmers – with pigs growing larger and larger in their barns every day – worried.  Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Annacaroline Caruso reports.

Mark York is a first generation pig farmer located just north of Wabash. All of the pork produced on his farm goes to Tyson for processing. But now York is left wondering what to do with his three barns full of pigs.

“You can dump milk and it wouldn’t be a huge thing other than financially for the dairy farmer, but what we would have to do would be far greater than that and we want to try and avoid that,” he says.

The pigs on his farm are currently between 8 and 12 weeks old. Once they reach 20 weeks, they’re ready for processing. York says they can only keep the pigs for so long before they become too large for processing and begin posing health risks.

The farming industry has taken a hit before, but York fears this pandemic will cause long-term issues. Farms will be seen as a high risk investment in the eyes of the bank, making it harder for farmers to get loans and raising interest rates.

“We had no idea that this was on the radar, a pandemic having an affect on our industry like it clearly has, so it’s a wake-up call,” York says.

Processing plants are a critical step to getting his pigs ready for the consumer. With meatpacking plants temporarily closed, it puts a hold on York’s business.

“The food banks and the food pantries which we contribute to, love the product we get, but in the form that it is in our barns, we have to have processing,” he says. “It’s just not in the form for us to be able to get it to a food pantry as a live animal.”

Jeanette Merritt is with the Indiana Pork Producers Association. She says it’s hard to predict if this will cause pork shortages, but the demand for meat is up and now there’s a kink in the food supply process.

“You can’t just stop raising pigs and stop asking them to grow,” Merritt says. “Pigs gain weight every day.”

That means farmers will either need to find other ways to sell their livestock or allow the pigs to stay on the farm longer and take up more space and feed.

Merritt says officials need to find a way to help farmers while still considering the health and safety of workers at a meatpacking plant where there’s a covid-19 outbreak.

“Farmers need a market to sell their pigs, so we hope when workers are healthy and the plants can be open, we start to see pigs moving again.”

But while most farmers are struggling, one small farm in Goshen is still able to provide meat to families.

“Small farms are the backbone of feeding our country in a time of crisis,” says Katrina Schrock, the owner of a meat farm in Goshen.

She started Vintage Meadows with her husband roughly six years ago. It’s a farm to table operation, meaning there’s no middle man like Tyson.

“We’re like the old fashioned, mom and pop farm from like back in the 40’s and 50’s which is actually where our name comes from, it’s vintage, Vintage Meadows,” she says.

That system has been a life saver for Schrock’s meat farm during this crisis because they can continue to sell food to customers, since they don’t rely on a meatpacking plant. They’ve seen a 50 percent increase in business since the pandemic began.

“The exciting part of this, not there’s many exciting parts of this whole Covid crisis, but there’s been people realizing where their food comes from and having a greater interest in supporting their local farms especially when there’s a breakdown in a food supply chain,” Schrock says.

Schrock says because all the steps are done on her farm, it minimizes the amount of people touching the meat before it reaches the customer – something that’s proving to be beneficial during a pandemic.