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'Feels like we're in the worst of it:' Tyson closure hitting hog farmers hard

'Feels like we're in the worst of it:' Tyson closure hitting hog farmers hard

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

LAWLER — Brady Reicks sends around 1.3 million pigs to market each year from his family’s Reicks View Farms near Lawler. The majority are processed at Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo.

But with Tyson shutting its doors last week, joining other hog processing facilities in the Midwest, Reicks has few places left to send his pigs. Smaller slaughterhouses can’t handle the massive influx of hogs from Iowa’s multi-billion dollar industry.

So Reicks and many farmers face a grim prospect: humanely killing pigs and disposing of the bodies until the plants reopen.

As long lines form at food banks across the country and consumers face shortages and price hikes at grocery stores, Reicks can’t help but note the disconnect.

“What’s so frustrating is that people are eating pork and they just can’t get it, and it’s not because the plants don’t want to run, and not because the grocery stores don’t want to sell, and not because the producers aren’t producing pigs,” he said. “You can’t get it through the supply chain because of the human safety issue.”

Tyson shut down its Waterloo plant last week amid a COVID-19 outbreak. Spokesperson Liz Croston said Monday the company does “not have a date determined yet for resuming operations.”

Reicks is hoping for some help from the government to stem losses, and perhaps even aid in the humane killing and disposal of his animals — a tough job to put on his farm workers.

Iowa’s elected officials are seeking that help. Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig signed on to a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to act to keep meatpacking plants open, assist farmers and boosting rural mental health.

President Trump said Tuesday he will use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to keep plants open.

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who represents much of Northeast Iowa, said she was glad to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issue new guidance and assistance for pork producers, including establishing a National Incident Coordination Center to help identify alternative markets for pigs and help assist with “depopulation,” if necessary.

Reicks said he appreciates any help that comes his way. But like many others upended by the coronavirus, he has little indication of what the future may bring.

“We don’t know how long this will last, how long people will not want to go to work,” he said. “Right now, it kind of feels like we’re in the worst of it. A lot of plants are closing right now.”

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