ST. PAUL — The coronavirus is hammering the Upper Midwest food industry hard. Outbreaks of the virus have idled processing plants crucial to the nation's food supply, killed some workers and sickened many more and are forcing farmers to choose: lose more money, or euthanize their own animals.

A Forum News Service analysis found the virus has infected workers in at least 15 food processing facilities across Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin and closed 11 plants. Seven of those remained closed as of Friday, April 24.

Friday brought news of two new closures, this time a pair of Jennie-O Turkey Store processing plants in Willmar, where 14 employees tested positive for the coronavirus, according to company leadership.

Close working conditions and incentives to stay on the floor despite symptoms allowed the virus to spread through the meat processing plants and through communities. The number of workers sickened across the region ballooned and at least 10 have died from the disease and its complications.

And the move to shutter plants that take in tens of thousands of hogs each forced an unprecedented situation for hog farmers. Farmers are looking to other markets or scaling back feeding. But efforts to slow growth only buy additional days or weeks, without the plants to process the hogs, farmers will have to consider euthanizing the animals.

“It creates a bottleneck within that system that we’ve never seen before in this country,” David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board, said. “Not even close.”

Labor officials and workers advocates warned that the path to reopening the plants would be attainable but the new normal for many would require health screenings and broad testing to curb the virus' spread within the plants.

It wasn't immediately clear how quickly the plants would be able to update their procedures to meet new safety measures and how soon workers would be well enough to return or feel comfortable doing so.

In the meantime, agriculture officials said farmers will be caught in a vice. And lawmakers across the region called for Congress and state legislatures to move relief funding to help hog farmers and others weather the situation.

Hog farmers across South Dakota are facing pressure to offload animals in any way possible because the COVID-19 pandemic has led to closure of meatpacking plants and reduction of processing capacity by 25% or more. (Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)
Hog farmers across South Dakota are facing pressure to offload animals in any way possible because the COVID-19 pandemic has led to closure of meatpacking plants and reduction of processing capacity by 25% or more. (Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch)

Unprecedented bottleneck

Farmers had been hurting before the news of regional plant closures limited their market access.

For five years, farmers have seen low prices that led to low farm incomes. Tenuous trade deals along with tariff fights have fueled a backlog of hogs in the United States and in the region.

The closure of dine-in restaurants across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic further eroded demand for higher-dollar cuts like ribs and pork belly. And then came the closures of processing plants around the region, spurred by outbreaks in cases of COVID-19.

In early April, a Tyson pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa announced a temporary closure. Then a week later, Smithfield plants in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Cudahy, Wis.; and Martin City, Mo.; closed due to reported surges of COVID-19 cases in the Sioux Falls facility that supplied raw materials to the other two plants.

Within days, pork processing plants in Worthington; Windom; Perry, Iowa; Waterloo, Iowa; and Green Bay, Wis.; closed their doors. And other food processing plants handling beef, potatoes, poultry and other goods announced news cases of the illness and mulled plans to close their doors.

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., opened in 1909 and currently employs about 3,700. (Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service)
The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., opened in 1909 and currently employs about 3,700. (Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service)

Combined, the idled processing plants have cut more than 100,000 daily slots to process pigs, making it hard for farmers to find places to sell animals that are ready for market.

“This is just a gut punch to the whole thing,” Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said. “We have tens of thousands of pigs that we have to find a home for each day.”

Farmers are scurrying to find new places to sell their animals, or scaling back their feeding, hoping to just maintain their size, but prices aren’t great so people are losing money when they sell.

States have relaxed rules for how many pigs a farmer can keep on their farms, but that isn’t a long-term fix for the big question: What do I do with pigs I can’t sell?

“If they have any extra room in the buildings at all, why, they can keep the fat hogs a little bit longer and bring the little ones in and keep them that way a little bit because obviously the little ones don’t take up much room,” Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said. “That’s helpful for a week or two, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

Farmers might be able to sell some pigs locally, but there are only so many local butcher shops, and they’re usually already booked four to six months ahead, VanderWal said.

Without other options, farmers might have to turn to the last resort, euthanizing their animals although they're not sick or hurt, Preisler, with the Minnesota Pork Board, said.

“We are going to have to put down healthy pigs that were going to be food, and we don’t have a choice. Farmers don’t have a choice,” Preisler said. “It’s incredibly against the ethics of farmers to have to put down animals that could be healthy food."

JBS Employees join the line for COVID-19 testing at the Nobles County Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon. The line began near the horse barn and continued through the grounds and into the hockey arena, where the drive-thru testing was conducted. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)
JBS Employees join the line for COVID-19 testing at the Nobles County Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon. The line began near the horse barn and continued through the grounds and into the hockey arena, where the drive-thru testing was conducted. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

Farmers find themselves looking to the federal government for help, before their businesses fail, dragging down the economies of their local communities, Preisler said.

“We’re not necessarily looking for sympathy. There are a lot of parts of the economy that are kind of wrecked right now,” Preisler said. “We’re just kind of in a tough spot right now.”

Chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, called on the Trump administration to issue assistance and to develop a national response for hog farmers dealing with the plant closures.

“Because of COVID-19, many of America’s pork producers have no access to processing and have no choice but to depopulate their herds,” Peterson said. “Without fast action and clear coordination, this situation will only get worse, not just for pork producers but for other livestock and poultry producers as well."

Congressional delegates from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have also pressed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy up pork and offer financial assistance to producers.

Slow the line

The meat processing sector is at a "pressure point" as workers remain critical under state and local stay at home orders and plant leaders attempt to adapt in real-time to limit the spread of sickness among workers, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said.

And pressed to keep processing at pre-COVID-19 levels, without adequate health precautions, and in some cases, with incentives to keep coming to work while sick, outbreaks have sprung up at processing plants around the Midwest.

"What we’ve learned in that sector is that we weren’t good and so we need to dial it back," Leppink said. "They cannot operate at the capacity that they were operating at. They need to slow the lines, they need to sequence their shifts, they need to take longer on transitioning from breaks and in and out of their facility and also to ramp up the health testing, temperature taking."

Worker safety is a critical part of keeping plants open, said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The UFCW represents workers at many of the nation’s food processing plants including nearly all of the 3,700 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls.

Perrone said the union is calling on Trump administration officials to take better care of processing plant workers or risk further plant shutdowns.

“Unless immediate changes are made, America meatpacking and food processing workers are in danger, and so is America’s food supply,” said Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW.

The union is demanding plant workers get prioritized for COVID-19 testing, access to protective equipment, and a halt to federal waivers that allow processing plants to crank up the speed of lines in their plant, where workers labor shoulder to shoulder butcher animals.

“Unless we do something, more plants will close,” said Mark Lauritsen, UFCW vice president. “Our country cannot in the same breath call meatpacking and food processing workers essential employees and continue to sacrifice their health and safety, and the health and safety of their families.”

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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.

COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148

Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline: 833-600-2670