Over the past weeks and months, we have stress-tested our economy, our health care system, and the resilience of the American people. This pandemic has also tested our food supply systems. While we fully expect grocery store shelves to remain stocked, it does not mean there won’t be impacts further up the chain, especially for South Dakota farmers and ranchers.
All of agriculture is struggling right now, but the situation is particularly dire for our South Dakota pork producers. For context, 70% of U.S. bacon is consumed in restaurants. As that demand evaporated, prices started to nosedive. The pork industry estimates that losses are projected at $37.50/head and counting.
The indefinite closure of the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant has placed an even greater strain on producers. Since then, our region has seen similar-sized plants close in Minnesota and Iowa, resulting in over 100,000 pigs per day with no place to go – that’s roughly thirty percent of our nation’s processing capacity. The Center for Disease Control recently issued a report on the Smithfield plant, I’m hopeful the necessary steps will be taken so they can re-open – sooner rather than later.
Safely reopening these essential processing plants is necessary for food security, but this temporary shutdown will have far greater and longer lasting impacts on our pork producers than it will Smithfield. Pigs grow fast. Hogs gain an average of 1.7 pounds a day – it’s also important to know that pork producers have certain barns designed for certain size and age pigs. As they outgrow one barn, they move on to the next barn. This system allows for quality animal welfare practices and efficiency.
When things back up at the processing plant, it has a trickle-down effect. They back up in the finishing barn, the nursery, the farrowing barn where baby pigs are born, and eventually it will impact pregnant sows. With an indefinite shut down, pork producers are faced with limited options. We can all understand the impacts of a market in decline, but the financial and emotional toll of this situation is unimaginable.
The actions we take over the next few weeks will impact the livelihoods of hundreds of independent family farms, the future of pork production, and the variety of options in the grocery store. Over the past month, I’ve had countless calls with producers, Administration officials and my colleagues in Congress. We’ve urged USDA to deliver real, temporary assistance to livestock producers across the board. The situation needs stiches, not a band-aid. I will also continue to push the federal government to provide the resources and expertise needed to return to a normal supply chain. Our supply chain infrastructure has allowed us to have the world’s safest, most abundant and highest quality food around. For most, the term “bringing home the bacon” is colloquial, for our producers, it's literally a way of life.
Dusty Johnson brings an energetic and optimistic style to Washington as South Dakota’s lone voice in the U.S. House of Representatives. A recognized leader in issues related to rural America, agriculture, and welfare reform, he serves on the Agriculture Committee and as ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing the SNAP Food Stamp program and the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. Dusty also focuses on welfare reform and workforce development as a key member of the Committee on Education and Labor. Prior to being elected to Congress, he served as chief of staff to the Governor and as vice president of an engineering firm specializing in rural telecommunications. Dusty lives in Mitchell with his wife and three sons.