Just Don't Call It "Swine Flu"

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AP

I’m at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, where farmers haven’t been living high on the hog for almost two years.

They’re selling pigs for $22 less per headthan it cost to raise them.

It’s been that way since September, 2007. How does that happen?

The farming biz is funny that way. Pork producers face rising costs for things like feed, but they don’t set market prices. They’re forced to take whatever they can get, and if they keep losing money, well, eventually something’s gotta give.

That something may be now.

After facing record high corn prices a year ago, followed by a recession affecting consumer pocketbooks, pig farmers were hoping for a pick up in the market this spring. "This is the annual grilling season," says farmer Randy Spronk. But on April 24th, the world learned that people were dying in Mexico from a virus someone dubbed the "swine flu".

"The news cycle over those few days resulted in a double digit drop in fresh pork product consumption purchases in the U.S.," says Don Butler, President of the National Pork Producers Council.

He says in May, the American pork industry lost an estimated $500 million in sales.

Adding to the problem, one in five U.S. hogs is raised to go overseas. But China (our second largest foreign market) and Russia (#4) have banned most American pork from being imported because of H1N1 virus concerns.

There are a lot of pigs right now with nowhere to go.

So everywhere you go here in Des Moines, pork professionals are busy spreading the word that you can’t get the flu from eating pork. They are redoubling "bio security" education efforts for farmers. "This is one of the cleanest bunch of pigs you could find in America," says Darrell Anderson of the National Swine Registry.

2008 was the second worst year in the pork industry, and currently, hog futures are trading 20 percent below where they were even during that dark time. Profitability isn’t expected to return until the middle of next year. "Between now and then," says the NPPC’s Don Butler, "a lot people are not going to be able to hang on."

"The issue is, who’s going to leave?" says farmer Randy Spronk. There’s been talk of thinning the national swineherd for over a year, but few seem willing to make the necessary…chops…even as they lose money. "My packer may go to 32 hours a week," Spronk says, "They’re not making profitability so there’s no use killing pigs."

And yet, there’s still a determination to not give up. This year in Iowa, a record number of young people have come to show pigs—550 children from across the country. And people like 32-year-old Joel Stave are coming into farming as a first generation pork producer. His dad was an accountant, but Joel is passionate about pigs. He’s even developing new software technologies to better manage feed, saving as much as 25 cents a head. "It’s a great community," he says of agriculture. "They’re always there to help in tough times like this. We’ll stick together and get through it."

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