Growing up on a corn and soybean farm with my only livestock experience being the care of my 4-H animals, I would have never known how much of an impact hog farmers have on the overall agriculture industry. Of course, living in Iowa, I always knew how important pork production is to my home state, but didn’t have a full appreciation for this dynamic farm sector until I accepted an internship in the Washington, D.C., office of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I missed the chance to be in Washington and work a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital. Instead of riding the D.C. metro to work this summer, my commute was a quick trip down the stairs to my basement office. Regardless, I end this summer with a deeper knowledge of the commitment and resolve of America’s pork producers.
At the beginning of 2020, hog producers were optimistic. The ‘phase one’ China trade deal had just been passed, raising hope for increased pork purchases by the largest pork-consuming nation in the world, USMCA was set to go into effect in July, and a favorable new trade deal with Japan was in force. After two unprofitable years caused by trade retaliation against U.S. pork, industry economists projected hog farmers to make, on average, $10 per hog. While things weren’t all rainbows and sunshine – the ever-looming threat of African swine fever entering the U.S. was still a large concern – hog farmers finally had some momentum at the start of this year. Then, the pandemic hit.
Too quickly, everyone was affected by COVID-19. While I complained about being stuck at home while turning 21, every U.S. economic sector was feeling the strain. This feeling was especially prevalent among hog farmers. Deemed essential workers to the nation’s food supply by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, American hog farmers remained hard at work. The impact of COVID-19 soon caused major disruptions in the pork supply chain when outbreaks caused harvest facilities to shut down or significantly reduce operations. Rapidly, a bottleneck formed and producers were stranded with too many animals and not enough room to care for them. Talk of euthanasia began swirling, confirming a producer’s worst nightmare: putting down a perfectly healthy animal intended for the food supply. Demonstrating innovation and resourcefulness, producers modified the diets for pigs, slowing their growth and reducing the need for depopulation. Food banks began filling up with fresh pork as producers donated hogs to their communities for consumption. Even though these measures helped reduce the need for euthanasia and meat-processing plants capacity has improved significantly, hog farmers still face a serious crisis. Industry economist Dr. Steve Meyer estimates that up to two million hogs remain backed up on farms and hog farmers will lose approximately $5 billion this year.
With the bleak reality of the current coronavirus crisis, NPPC has worked hard for the last five months to advocate for much-needed federal assistance for hog farmers. Within the first coronavirus package, the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was created to address losses incurred by producers. Unfortunately, CFAP has not fully covered the losses of pork producers. As lawmakers work on the next COVID relief package, NPPC continues to urge Congress to finalize a bill that includes the livestock agriculture provisions in the House-passed HEROES Act and the RELIEF for Producers Act, which was introduced by Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). In times like these, it is vital that producers have a voice in Washington.
While NPPC has marshaled its resources to address the COVID crisis, it continues to focus on other priorities for U.S. hog farmers. Progress was made this summer as the USDA announced its first significant Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) vaccine bank purchase. NPPC was instrumental in advocating for the establishment of the FMD vaccine bank as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. This first step is progress towards the establishment of a robust FMD vaccine bank, eliminating the potential for FMD to become widespread in the future. NPPC has also played a critical role in strengthening biosecurity defenses against African swine fever, an animal disease affecting only pigs and with no human health or food safety risks.
Throughout my internship, I have seen firsthand the critical role NPPC plays for pork producers. NPPC works hard to ensure that the interests of hog farmers are understood in Washington, D.C. This is especially vital during this unprecedented time when hog farmers are financially and emotionally hurting. Despite all of the hardships, I fully believe that American hog farmers are resilient, will overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and that NPPC will continue to work hard to help stabilize the industry.
I am thankful for the opportunity to serve and learn as an NPPC intern this summer. Regardless of the circumstances, I learned that hog farmers continue to persevere through even the darkest storms, and I hope to adopt this mindset as I begin my career in the agriculture industry.