Being a pig farmer was already hard. Then came coronavirus.

This Iowa farmer loves his work. But amid meatpacking plant disruptions, he’s fighting to keep his pigs from being euthanized.


By Holly Bailey, The Washington Post

May 21, 2020


QUASQUETON, Iowa — Al Wulfekuhle was just a kid when he started raising pigs, helping his dad run the family farm in an eastern Iowa town even smaller than this one.


By the time he was 19, he was running his own place, called to a profession that wasn’t glamorous or even remotely easy but made him feel like he was doing something important. “It’s a noble profession, being a farmer,” he said. “You’re essential because you’re trying to feed the world.”


When Wulfekuhle was starting out, business was good, prices were high. And then, almost overnight, the market collapsed, part of the 1980s farm crisis that decimated the agriculture industry and killed off generations of family farms across Iowa.


Wulfekuhle was almost one of them. He still vividly remembers the day he and his wife, Kathy, tearfully loaded pigs onto a truck, having sold them at rock-bottom prices that were not nearly enough to cover the expenses of their young farm.


“We just cried,” he recalled. “We didn’t think we were going to make it. We thought we were going to lose everything.”


Lately, Wulfekuhle, now 61, has been thinking about those days a lot, searching for perspective in the face of coronavirus-related disruptions to the pork industry that he worries could be every bit as devastating for family farmers already on the brink because of rising land costs and falling profits, in part because of the recent U.S. trade war with China.


Farmers here and across the country had entered 2020 hopeful about recouping some of their losses, after China agreed to a new trade deal in January that included commitments to buy billions of dollars in U.S. goods, such as pork. But then came the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 90,000 Americans and upended life and business in ways previously unimaginable.


Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the Midwest have sickened thousands of workers — including more than 1,600 in Iowa, where four major plants were forced to temporarily close. In recent weeks, some operations have resumed, including at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, where Wulfekuhle sends most of his pigs, but it hasn’t been the same.


The disruption to the meatpacking industry has left a roughly two-month backlog of pigs across Iowa and in surrounding states, hundreds of thousands of animals that were ready to be slaughtered weeks ago but increasingly have nowhere to go.


With packed farms and animals growing too large to be processed by plants not yet running at full capacity as companies try to keep vulnerable workers safe, many hog farmers are being forced to do the unthinkable: kill their pigs and dispose of their bodies instead of having them processed for food.


“It’s horrible,” Wulfekuhle said. “You put so much into caring for these pigs, growing them and taking care of them and doing everything you can to keep them healthy.”


Farmers are about life, he said, and the idea of killing the animals and the food they represent goes against every instinct.


“That’s just not what we do. That’s not the business we are in,” he said. “It’s just incredibly hard to even think about.”


The National Pork Producers Council has estimated as many as 10 million hogs will be euthanized by the end of the summer because of coronavirus-related disruptions in meat processing. In Minnesota, the situation is already dire — with an average of 2,000 pigs a day being killed, according to the state agriculture department. About 90,000 pigs have been euthanized in the state in the past six weeks.


In Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the country, responsible for about a third of the market, farmers had euthanized an estimated 5,000 hogs as of May 7, according to state officials, with numbers expected to increase in coming weeks.


Some farmers like Wulfekuhle, whose operation usually brings roughly 34,000 pigs a year to market, saw the crisis coming and quickly made adjustments to try to slow down the growth of their pigs before the worst of the pandemic hit the heartland. But with processing plants operating at a lower capacity, farmers across the state will soon have to make difficult choices.


Wulfekuhle has been luckier than most. In recent days, he’s been able to get a few truckloads of pigs out the door...