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For $.28 a pound, Shorty Hofer doesn’t want to sell his hogs, but in a farrow-to-finish operation where new litters of piglets are born every week, you run out of room in your barn.
“We farrow every week,” said Hofer, a hog farmer and business manager of the Hutterite Midway Colony near Conrad. “We keep farrowing, so we’ve got to keep them moving. They’ve got to go somewhere every week.”
So Hofer keeps taking the losses.
“It’s better than killing them,” he said.
With many meat processing plants still offline because of COVID-19 outbreaks at facilities, farmers across the country have had to euthanize millions of animals. In Montana, most hogs go to West Coast facilities that have seen less disruption, so hog farmers have not yet taken the step of euthanizing animals. Still, the state Department of Livestock is gearing up its carcass disposal facility in anticipation of the possibility.
Those that are sold are bringing prices near zero. The average cost to raise a hog from farrow to finish is about $125 per head, according to Iowa State University.
“It’s been a world of hurt,” Hofer said.
Hofer decided to do something different with his most recent load of finished hogs. Rather than sell all of them at a loss, Hofer made a deal with Independent Meat Company, his regular processor in Twin Falls, Idaho. If Independent Meat would slaughter 10 hogs without charge, the processor could keep the prime cuts for resale, and Hofer would take the equivalent weight in hot dogs and ground pork. Hofer then would donate the 800 pounds of pork to local food banks.
Seven other Montana Hutterite colonies have made similar deals.
“I am so proud of what our farmers are doing,” said Anne Miller, executive director of the Montana Pork Producers Council. “We’re getting more animals directly into the food supply.”
Montana is a net exporter of pork. At Hutterite colonies, which produce more than 95% of the hogs in Montana, as well as significant amounts of eggs and dairy and other crops including potatoes, the donations are wide-ranging. Twenty-nine Montana Hutterite colonies have each donated about 12,000 gallons of milk to the Montana Food Bank Network. Some Hutterite donations also include fresh-baked bread, Miller said.
“We can’t take care of the whole state, but we figured we’ll help locally and start locally,” Hofer said.
Joel Schumacher, an extension economics associate specialist at Montana State University, said any food kept in-state is a net positive for Montana consumers. Montana-raised hogs are typically sold to out-of-state markets.
In Park County, with the Livingston Food Resource Center seeing a 300% increase in need, rancher Matt Pierson decided to donate a few of his older cows to be locally butchered for donation to food banks in Livingston and Big Timber. Pierson organized more than a dozen local ranchers to donate more than 20 animals, he said. The Park County Community Foundation raised money to help pay for the processing fees.
Like most cattle ranches in the state, Pierson’s Highland Livestock sells its cattle as feeders that will go to an out-of-state feedlot to be fattened and later be processed at a large processing facility.
Some ranchers have also sought out local markets for their livestock, Miller said, but there is a limited number of in-state cattle and hog processors, which must be federally or state inspected.
Montana politicians, at the request of farming and ranching organizations, have asked the USDA to allow custom exempt processors, who often slaughter deer and elk for hunters, to temporarily process meat for ranchers to donate to food banks.
“It will be a critical issue in the future,” Miller said. “There is an extremely limited amount of slaughter capacity right now.”
Montana Department of Livestock Executive Director Mike Honeycutt said the state is pushing hard for the exemption, and has created new temporary regulations to ensure meat is processed safely.
“The Montana Department of Livestock has identified a rigorous set of criteria to ensure food safety and humane slaughter, and would not allow such exempted meat products to enter general commerce,” Sen. Jon Tester wrote in a letter to the USDA earlier this month. “This proposal aims to close the gap between food banks and producers, eliminate food waste, and ensure that we can keep food on the table for Montana families.”
Wyoming, which similarly lacks in-state commercial processors, recently amended its Food Freedom Law to allow ranchers to sell cuts of meat directly to in-state consumers by making those consumers part-owners of the cattle.
Pierson said he has heard some interest in that idea in Montana, but he wants to ensure customer confidence that the meat is safe to eat.
“All of the regulations we have have been implemented for a reason,” he said.
For now, Pierson said, he’s glad to be helping at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the cattle market. The Department of Livestock has said it expects some ranchers to go out of business due to the pandemic-driven economic downturn.
That downturn is expected to especially impact rural communities. In some counties in central and eastern Montana, agriculture is tied to up to 80% of the economy, Schumacher said.
Cattle producers, along with wheat and barley farmers, are among the most impacted, said George Haynes, a professor and agricultural policy specialist in extension economics at Montana State University. The cow-calf business, in combination with wheat and barley, makes up more than 80% of the agriculture economy in the state.
With prices having dropped about 30% for cattle and even more for hogs during the pandemic, Miller said, she can tell the donations are helping farmers deal with a time of incredible stress.
“That will provide a significant mental health boost when they’re faced with the hardest decision they’ve ever made,” Miller said of farmers choosing whether to euthanize animals or take significant losses on their sale. “For every hog that goes straight to the food supply, farmers will walk that much taller in the barn.”
This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.