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Pork Producers reflect on conditions, challenges

By Staff | Mar 20, 2020



As local businesses and institutions begin to implement more austere isolation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, attendees at the Webster County Pork Producers annual banquet Monday night were not spared from coronavirus concerns.

“We are in for a very rough time,” said U.S. Steve King, R-Kiron, in a text message read by Phil Sundblad, his agriculture policy adviser.

King said that there are two ways to gain “herd immunity,” during the spread of the virus. One is to “let it run rampant,” the other is to self-quarantine and disperse to prevent transmission as quickly or often.

“The result is less death, but a longer economic recovery,” King said. “Life comes first, and so (the second option) is the right decision. The world needs to eat, and any backup (of production) would be an unmanageable disaster.”

King noted that stabilization of the coronavirus in China was a “good sign” for pork producers in Iowa, but that labor in local packing plants may be a mitigating factor moving forward.

One in the room asked Sundblad to look into “back-up plans.”

“We can take two weeks off if we wash cars,” said Larry Alliger, board member of Webster County Pork Producers, “but what happens if packing plants can’t work?”

He urged King to look into a solution that could mitigate the disaster of closure for even a few days.

“The truckers are already talking about what happens if we don’t take the pigs into the plant,” said President Gregg Hora.

Hora said information relayed from the National Pork Producer Council and the National Pork Board indicated a pervasive infection rate with COVID-19 could be “devastating” to the industry for suppliers, partners and other interrelated industries.

Guest speaker Abby Larsen, quality assurance manager for CTI Foods in Humboldt, said that local packing and processing plants are already struggling to fill open positions as the situation stands.

“There are people that apply, come to orientation and leave after lunch,” she said in response to a question on the state of workforce recruitment.

Coronavirus isn’t the only thing the pork industry has to worry about. African swine fever, a lingering threat, could further cripple the industry if it hits American shores. Hora said that USDA regulations would mandate a 72-hour stop on truck traffic if that happens.

“Believe me, there’s a lot going on,” he said.

But not everything was bad news.

It was announced that Canada signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on Friday – news that passed quietly under the radar as COVID-19 spread dominated national news cycles. The legislation has been hailed by the Trump Administration and Iowa Republicans as a viable replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Iowa Pork Producers Association representative Emma Lasco said that Iowa is well ahead of 13 other states in terms of being prepared for a potential disaster, according to a recent simulation exercise with the USDA.

“That’s probably the biggest thing we have on our side,” she said.

After giving a presentation that showed how millions of pounds of pepperoni is made each week, Larsen said that USDA stops on facilities during any virus would hurt locals.

“It’s a real fear,” she said. “Pork production provides millions of jobs beyond the farm.”

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