WORTHINGTON, Minn. — JBS may begin euthanizing market weight hogs at its pork processing facility in Worthington as early as this week as the region’s pork producers have few options to get their livestock processed into chops, bacon, sausage and hams.
The dire situation for pork producers, and the continued closure of JBS in Worthington, is leading Gov. Tim Walz, along with U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson (DFL-District 7) and Jim Hagedorn (R-District 1), to visit Worthington at 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 29.
Several area farmers said Monday that they were notified by their JBS hog buyer that they can now schedule euthanization of hogs over 330 pounds.
Randy Wiertzema, a rural Rushmore, Minn., pork producer, spoke with anger and frustration about the situation he and other producers face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spread of the highly contagious coronavirus among JBS employees has caused the processing plant to temporarily shutter. A four-day testing program set up last weekend in Worthington resulted in 239 positive cases among JBS’ more than 2,000 employees.
Wiertzema, who delivered 15 loads of hogs two weeks prior to the shutdown, said he’s one of the lucky ones, at least for now. He doesn’t have hogs ready for processing in his barns, but it’s only a matter of time.
“I’m sitting in front of 5,000 pigs that aren’t ready yet,” he said. “I have 10 loads put in (scheduled with the buyer) for the week of May 4.”
If JBS doesn’t reopen soon — and if he can’t get loads into any of the other processing facilities — Wiertzema said he could face one-month losses of $700,000.
“And I’m a small producer,” he added.
Wiertzema said the shuttering of pork processing plants is affecting producers today, but it will affect consumers in the months to come.
“This is good, high-quality food that’s being destroyed,” Wiertzema said. “Somebody’s not going to be able to eat that, and that’s going to be a big deal.
“I don’t believe the people in the world understand that this food can’t be replaced,” he added. “There were starving people in the world before this happened. Now, we are just burying quality food and that can’t go on.”
On Monday, Rep. Peterson said in an interview that he requested JBS open the Worthington plant’s CO2 building to help deal with the number of hogs that will need to be euthanized.
“It’s what we have to do,” Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said, noting that Smithfield in Sioux Falls, S.D., has declined to participate in euthanizing hogs. Smithfield and JBS process more than one-half of the pork raised in Minnesota.
Peterson said JBS is re-engineering its plant to euthanize the hogs using the same processes as it does when slaughtering. JBS has agreed to euthanize the animals at its expense.
A portion of the carcasses will be rendered at the plant, but a larger share will be transported to landfills at sites to be determined. There’s a possibility some carcasses could be incinerated.
The Worthington plant has the capacity to euthanize roughly 13,000 hogs per day, Peterson said. He was told there's a need to handle 70,000 to 100,000 hogs a day.
Peterson said meat processors are working with state and federal representatives to find ways to safely resume processing, adding it could take two to three weeks or more before processing can be resumed.
He's working with both the USDA and MDA to work out compensation to pork producers for their losses.
Peterson said some pork producers have already been forced to euthanize their hogs, noting it's very hard on the mental and emotional well-being of producers. That is why he turned to JBS for help.
Doug Bullerman, one of five brothers in partnership with Son-D-Farms at Adrian, said Monday that they haven’t had to euthanize any hogs yet, but said they are holding hogs that should have gone to processors in the last week.
With still no indication from JBS about reopening, Bullerman — like his brother David pleaded in an interview last week — said the National Guard should be brought in to get the processing plant up and running.
“Put our military in there — it ain’t that hard to cut a hog up,” Bullerman said.
As he watches hogs continue to gain weight in the barns, Bullerman has been on the phone with legislators to express the dire situation he and fellow pork producers are in.
“If we don’t get paid for these hogs, we’re going under,” Bullerman said. “There’s no way we can survive. We’re supposed to be selling hogs every day.”
He’s hopeful the federal government will come up with a plan — and soon.
Another Nobles County hog producer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he got a load scheduled into Tyson on Tuesday — his first load going out of his barns in the last week.
“All of these plants are full,” he said. “You can’t just call up a plant that’s four hours away and expect to get the hogs in.”
On top of that, with so many producers looking for alternative plants to process their hogs, the packers have little to no competition in bidding. As a result, producers who were already seeing low profit margins have seen profits all but disappear.
“The packers are taking advantage of us once again,” the farmer said. “Everyone’s got to be able to make money out here. Why do they always get to make money?”
Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Peterson said he remains in active discussions with Nobles County commissioners, District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne), District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) and other southern Minnesota leaders about the local situation with hog producers and JBS.
“It’s incredibly stressful for the farmers and we realize that,” Thom Peterson said. “The calls I’ve taken are the toughest in my 20 years in ag policy.”
He said there is some work on a program for pork producers at the state level, but funding has to come from the federal government.
As for Bullerman’s request to bring in the National Guard, the ag commissioner said that has been considered.
“Governor Walz served in the Guard for 20-some years and he’s very familiar with what the Guard can and cannot do. Right now, we have not activated the Guard, but it is an option if needed,” Thom Peterson said, adding that Minnesota is talking with Iowa about the idea as well.
“It’s a big, important decision to activate the Guard … to put them in harm’s way,” he added.
Tom Cherveny of the West Central Tribune contributed to this story.