“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” South Dakota pig farmer Steve Rommereim confided to his friend Scott Phillips, a pig farmer in Missouri. “It’s bad. Real bad.”
The line went quiet.
Although Phillips had heard rumors that some producers were going to have to euthanize pigs, things weren’t that devastating in his area. The next morning Philips called his friend back and left Rommereim speechless.
A Risky Move
“How far are you from Remsen, Iowa?” Phillips asked Rommereim the next morning.
“40 minutes,” Rommereim replied.
“Well a truck is going to stop in your yard later today. It’s dropping off some weaner pigs in Remsen, then will come your way to bring back a load of your 300+-pound hogs to Missouri,” Phillips said.
Rommereim was shocked.
During a time when the hog markets were on a roller coaster to hell, his friend was just going to give up a chance to send a load of hogs to his packer? The thought baffled him.
“That’s a generosity that I personally don’t see often,” Rommereim says. “He risked a bit of his own production to help me.”
Sure enough, a truck and trailer pulled into his yard that afternoon. The driver slept there overnight and together they loaded up a trailer of 165 heavy hogs to head back to Missouri the next morning.
“I was stunned. I didn't have to pay for trucking because the truck was up here anyway,” Rommereim says. “As they drove away, I thought, ‘wow, that's really something.’ It just came from the goodness of his heart. He didn’t have to do that for me.”
For Rommereim, age 60, farming and raising hogs has been his life. His feeder-to-finish operation runs about 5,000 head at a time – a plan that got incredibly disrupted during COVID-19.
Having raised pigs for many years, the news of a new virus was nothing new to him. When he heard about novel coronavirus, he thought it was going to be another version of the flu going around.
“I didn't get too panicky about it,” Rommereim says. “But then I started hearing about a lot of problems in China and began wondering what this was going to be like in the U.S. All of a sudden, it's Easter, and they're closing down harvesting facilities all over America.”
That’s when the panic set in. When the Smithfield plant he contracts with closed down in Sioux Falls, S.D., he had 12 loads lined up to go to market during the two-week period the plant was shuttered.
“All of a sudden, you’re asking yourself, ‘What does this mean not only for me, but for everybody else in this industry?’ Panic is the best word,” Rommereim says. “’What are we going to do?’”
After Smithfield shuttered, more plants began slowing down or closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks among employees and absenteeism. People were scared and rightfully so. No one knew what was going to happen next.
“All of a sudden you're in this situation you've never been in and are trying to manage your way through it,” Rommereim says. “Slowing down rations, stacking young pigs up and coming up with strategies around maintaining and at least getting through the next week.”
With 12 loads canceled – basically an entire barn – Rommereim was forced to make hard decisions.
“I kept thinking, ‘I'm going to have to dig a hole.’ That was just unbelievable to have to think that way,” he says.
They were able to buy a little time because of double-stocking taking place in nurseries. This helped him figure out what to do next. They were also able to market a few pigs across four and five state lines, such as Missouri and Illinois.
“I know within South Dakota, there have been pigs sent to Oregon, Oklahoma and Texas and a lot of different places where somebody had some room. Most states were able to market pigs non-traditionally from selling pigs out the back door, giving pigs away, donating to local food banks and more. That adds up to more pigs than you might think,” he adds.
The market disruptions have led to many unanticipated events.
“Once you get over the suffering and pain of what are we going to do with all these pigs, it ends up being a good story in many ways,” Rommereim says. “Hopefully, there are going to be some new channels out there that we can access and not be so locked into the schedules. Right now, the schedules don't mean anything anymore.”
It’s time to look for solutions to the fragility of the entire pork chain and the fact that these packing plants mean everything to us as producers, he adds.
“What are we going to do to safeguard that system? That's a tough question to answer,” Rommereim says.
Source: National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff
Tough Questions and Empty Barns
Answering those tough questions and walking through the challenges with producers is just one part of Rommereim’s new role as the director of membership, outreach and engagement for the South Dakota Pork Producers.
In May, Rommereim decided to utilize his years of experience and passion for the pork industry to serve the industry in a new way. He’ll still be raising hogs, but he’s looking forward to serving his state, too.
“One of my main jobs has been to call producers and check in on them,” he says. “It’s been very stressful for those of us that have spent our entire lives making everything better for our pigs, being more efficient, more productive, and now all of a sudden, I've got nowhere to harvest pigs and they aren’t worth anything. How do you how do you move forward in that environment?”
He’s lived through many challenging markets, but nothing like this. He is concerned about the mental health of farmers right now and this new role allows him to look out for his farming friends.
“We've had some poor marketing times, but not the kind where we may have to dig a hole and put pigs in it. I've talked to many producers who have said, I can't do that. And I don't know how to get around this,” he says.
Who could have predicted at the onset of COVID-19, that the hotspots would be around harvest facilities and manufacturing facilities? Fortunately, as a state, South Dakota did not have to euthanize many pigs.
“We're in uncharted waters here,” he says. “And there wasn't a way to predict any of that.”
At the end of July, Rommereim received the best news he’s heard since Easter. He was able to secure 12 loads and empty his barns.
“I’ll get to start over with the younger pigs and won’t have any marketing pressure on me for at least a couple of months,” he explains. “That’s very good news.”
Dramatic changes to the pork industry will happen because of COVID-19, Rommereim says. He believes the unprofitability that farmers are wrestling with now will lead a lot of integration.
“There isn’t anybody left in the hog industry with enough capital to buy out those who have chosen or been forced to stop raising hogs,” he says. “The only people left with any capital are packers or other countries.”
He views natural integration as a move toward efficiency but says what’s happened here is not natural.
“My hope is this is a one-off event, and that it's not going to lead us down the trail where there's no real coming back from,” he says.
To be a pig farmer today, it takes a certain amount of integrity and loyalty, Rommereim says.
“Pig farmers are very high-quality, giving people who want to do the right thing,” he says. “I personally couldn't be prouder of everything that's gone on across the nation right now in the midst of the worst period in hog farming we’ve seen, at least since 1998. It just points to a lot of ‘put your head down – we’ve got to get this done’ thinking.”
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