With the pandemic hobbling the meat-packing industry, Iowa farmer Al Van Beek had nowhere to ship his full-grown pigs to make room for the 7,500 piglets he expected from his breeding operation.
The crisis forced a decision that still troubles him: He ordered his employees to give injections to the pregnant sows, one by one, that would cause them to abort their baby pigs.
Van Beek and other farmers say they have no choice but to cull livestock as they run short on space to house their animals or money to feed them, or both.
The world's biggest meat companies - including Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc - have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America since April as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.
Crisis in supply chain
Van Beek's piglets are victims of a sprawling food-industry crisis that began with the mass closure of restaurants - upending that sector's supply chain, overwhelming storage and forcing farmers and processors to destroy everything from milk to salad greens to animals. Processors geared up to serve the food-service industry can’t immediately switch to supplying grocery stores.
Millions of pigs, chickens and cattle will be euthanized because of slaughterhouse closures, limiting supplies at grocers, said John Tyson, chairman of top U.S. meat supplier Tyson Foods.
Pork has been hit especially hard, with daily production cut by about a third.
In Minnesota, farmers Kerry and Barb Mergen felt their hearts pound when a crew from Daybreak Foods Inc arrived with carts and tanks of carbon dioxide to euthanize their 61,000 egg-laying hens earlier this month.
Daybreak Foods, based in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, supplies liquid eggs to restaurants and food-service companies. The company, which owns the birds, pays contract farmers like the Mergens to feed and care for them. Drivers normally load the eggs onto trucks and haul them to a plant in Big Lake, Minnesota, which uses them to make liquid eggs for restaurants and ready-to-serve dishes for food-service companies.
But the plant’s operator, Cargill Inc, said it idled the facility because the pandemic reduced demand. Daybreak Foods, which has about 14.5 million hens with contractor-run or company-owned farms in the Midwest, is trying to switch gears and ship eggs to grocery stores, said Chief Executive Officer William Rehm.
But egg cartons are in shortage nationwide and the company now must grade each egg for size, he said. Rehm declined to say how much of the company's flock has been euthanized.
Farmers call for help
As the United States faces a possible food shortage, and supermarkets and food banks are struggling to meet demand, the forced slaughters are becoming more widespread across the country, according to agricultural economists, farm trade groups and federal lawmakers who are hearing from farmer constituents.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, along with both U.S. senators from a state that provides a third of the nation's pork, sent a letter to the Trump administration pleading for financial help and assistance with culling animals and properly disposing of their carcasses.
"There are 700,000 pigs across the nation that cannot be processed each week and must be humanely euthanized," said the April 27 letter.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said late Friday it is establishing a National Incident Coordination Center to help farmers find markets for their livestock or euthanize and dispose of animals if necessary.
Shame and grief
The latest economic disaster to befall the farm sector comes after years of extreme weather, sagging commodity prices and the Trump administration's trade war with China and other key export markets.
But it's more than lost income. The pandemic barreling through farm towns has mired rural communities in despair, a potent mix of shame and grief. Farmers take pride in the fact that their crops and animals are meant to feed people, especially in a crisis that has idled millions of workers and forced many to rely on food banks. Now, they’re destroying crops and killing animals for no purpose.
Farmers flinch when talking about killing off animals early or plowing crops into the ground, for fear of public wrath. Two Wisconsin dairy farmers, forced to dump milk by their buyers, told Reuters they recently received anonymous death threats.
"They say, 'How dare you throw away food when so many people are hungry?'" said one farmer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They don't know how farming works. This makes me sick, too."
Grocery prices up
Even as livestock and crop prices plummet, prices for meat and eggs at grocery stores are up. The average retail price of eggs was up nearly 40% for the week ended April 18, compared to a year earlier, according to Nielsen data. Average retail fresh chicken prices were up 5.4%, while beef was up 5.8% and pork up 6.6%.
Hog farmers nationwide will lose an estimated $5 billion, or $37 per head, for the rest of the year due to pandemic disruptions, according to the industry group National Pork Producers Council.
A recently announced $19 billion U.S. government coronavirus aid package for farmers will not pay for livestock that are culled, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farmer trade group.
The USDA said in a statement the payment program is still being developed and the agency has received more requests for assistance than it has money to handle.