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Meat Processing Plant Closures Ratchet Up Pressure On Ohio Farmers

Hogs at Six Buckets Farm.
Hogs at Six Buckets Farm.

Jeremy Jenkins has been running his meat processing business in Mount Victory, northwest of Columbus, for about a year. It’s typical for him to be booked up for several weeks, but now he’s turning away customers every day because he won’t be able to handle their job before Christmas.

“Right now we’re booked out almost seven months on processing and we’re running probably 140% of our capacity,” he says. “A lot of long days.”

He notes many of his bookings now are for hogs that haven’t even been born yet.

The surge in business is a ripple effect of pandemic-related closures or slowdowns at major meat processors around the Midwest. None of those major processors call Ohio home, but their absence has meant a sharp increase in demand at the smaller operations like Jenkins'.

In states like Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota, facilities that would ordinarily process tens of thousands of animals a day are throttled back or sitting idle due to employees contracting COVID-19.

“To put it in context, at least as of a few weeks ago, people were talking about there being a 40% drop in processing capacity for pork,” says Michigan State University agriculture economist Trey Malone. “But that 40% drop still represents 200,000 hogs a day—a day.”

Even working overtime, Jenkins goes through about 20 animals in a week. To say hog farmers face a bottleneck is an understatement.

Jeremy Jenkins, center, in his meat processing shop with Rob Morey (left) and Mark Seger (right).
Credit Meg Jenkins
Jeremy Jenkins, center, in his meat processing shop with Rob Morey (left) and Mark Seger (right).

Malone says the U.S. food supply chain operates on the principles of just-in-time production, a manufacturing strategy popularized by Toyota. It relies on precise timing to ensure you have exactly what you need, when you need it.

When it works well, manufacturers can reduce overhead costs, and deliver products cheaply to consumers. But it’s a complicated bit of choreography.

Ty Higgins from the Ohio Farm Bureau says when there's a disruption further down the line, farmers don’t have many options.

“For some livestock producers, that means putting cattle out to pasture for another week or two,” Higgins says. “And for a hog producer, that might mean changing the rations for the animals so that they grow slower, because with every day that goes by, those hogs get bigger and those barns get smaller.”

In Tuscarawas County, Lyndsey Teter runs a small hog farm with her husband. She says they’re lucky—they got their processing dates locked in early. Like Higgins, she says farmers can alter feed to slow down a pig’s growth, but that only buys a few weeks, and it’s expensive.

“It’s $900 a week to keep everybody fed and we only have 150 hogs on the ground at all times,” she says. “So if you’ve got thousands of those, maintaining that daily cost is not really feasible.”

Malone says the pandemic complicates that picture further. People are driving less, so ethanol production has plummeted. That means less distiller’s grain, an ethanol byproduct hog farmers could be using to delay their animals’ growth.

Lyndsey Teter at Six Buckets Farm.
Credit Seth Teter
Lyndsey Teter at Six Buckets Farm.

Malone says farmers are getting squeezed on both ends—unable to sell their animals and unable to find feed. Farmers in some states have even resorted to euthanizing their animals.

Although it hasn’t reached that point in Ohio, overbooked and overworked is becoming the norm for processors around the state. Jenkins sees a silver lining.

“I think they’re going to see the quality of the product that they’re going to get, and maybe [it will] keep them coming back,” Jenkins says.

For the time being, he admits it’s good for business. As for the long days, he just shrugs it off.

“You’ve got to make hay while the sun is shining,” he says.

What questions do you have about the coronavirus in Ohio? Ask below as part of our Curious Cbus series._

Copyright 2020 WOSU 89.7 NPR News