Northwest's small pig farmers face promise and perils amid the coronavirus pandemic

©The Seattle Times

Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/TNS

KINGSTON, Wash. — On a visit to Tania Issa’s farm, you won’t find any pink-skinned pigs reared to produce the lean “other white meat” once touted in pork industry advertising campaigns.

She raises Mangalitsas, an eastern European breed that sport startling coats of red, black and blonde wool. They yield richly colored meat marbled with a creamy white fat. They are free to ramble around much of her family’s 23-acre property and supplement their daily rations of barley, wheat and field peas by munching on blackberry brambles, Scotch broom and bugs dug out of the earth.

Issa and other small Washington livestock farmers report soaring demand for their products amid a pandemic that has put big strains on the nation’s meat industry. The giant Midwest plants where pigs are butchered have been staggered this year by large outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. Their operations then had to slow or sometimes shut down, which created a huge backup in pigs ready for slaughter with no place to go. Even with plant outputs rising in recent weeks, 2.5 million animals may end up killed on farms and buried by year’s end, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

This debacle in the Midwest heartland, along with tightened supplies in grocery stores, has helped stoke consumer interest in alternatives to industrial-scale meat production and created new opportunities for a struggling small livestock industry that has been seeking to play a bigger role in feeding the region.

“Our food system is out of whack, and something like this shows that,” Issa said. “People need to eat closer to their food source.”

But the novel coronavirus also has created fresh challenges for the estimated 1,200 Washington pig farmers, mostly tiny operators with less than 25 animals, as well as those who raise beef cattle and lambs. They have been hampered by a decadeslong contraction in the number of small regional slaughterhouses that are able — through the presence of USDA inspectors — to process meat for retail sale.

During the pandemic, this bottleneck has gotten a lot worse as processors try to capture consumer interest and push more meat to market. Many are booked up for months in advance, turning back lots of farmer business for lack of capacity.

“My schedule was full for the year before the pandemic and is now getting to the point of ridiculous,” said Eric Fietz, who operates Mt. Angel Meat Co., a USDA inspected slaughterhouse in northwest Oregon. “There is high demand and not enough small processors to get it done.”

Midwest market

For Northwest pig producers, there is another troubling ripple effect from the supply chain tumult in the Midwest. Thousands of surplus Midwestern pigs are being trucked here by entrepreneurs able to buy them cheap and sell them at a profit. Some of these pigs are ending up in regional slaughterhouses — rather than being butchered at home — and this can make it even more difficult for Northwest producers to secure a date for their animals to be processed.

Some of the younger Midwest pigs — known as weaners — will spend months fattening on farms, where they risk introducing new pig diseases to Washington and Oregon. These maladies include a stubborn coronavirus called porcine epidemic diarrhea, which struck the Midwest in 2013 and caused the deaths of eight million newborn piglets in the first year of the epidemic. Though vaccines have been developed, they are controversial because they may cause stress in pregnant sows.

Pigs brought into Washington state are supposed to carry certificates that indicate they originated from a farm where the virus is not present. But Dr. Amber Itle, the assistant Washington state veterinarian, said that doesn’t mean all the pigs were tested, and she is concerned that some could introduce the disease.

“It is a huge threat. Once it is here, it is very difficult to eradicate,” Itle said.

State agricultural inspectors in recent weeks have tried to track the newly arrived — an estimated 4,000 in Washington alone — and check for proper documentation.

They are finding some sold directly from the back of trucks that pull into makeshift parking-lot markets advertised on social media posts. Others have showed up at auctions, such as those held each week by the Chehalis Livestock Market, where the pale pink pigs from the Midwest, tails docked to prevent them from getting gnawed in close confinement of their birth farms, offer a contrast to the long-tailed furry animals raised by most of the local farmers.

The market operators say they had an offer to bring as many as 2,500 of these pigs to the auction. They said no, because there would not be near enough buyers.

“We’ve kept it to six or eight coming in each week,” said Dave Balmelli, the market’s co-owner. “We don’t want to flood the market.”

Production concerns

The U.S. meat industry has undergone relentless consolidation to efficiently produce ribs, steaks, chicken breasts and many other consumer offerings. One of the corporate giants, Smithfield Foods — owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group — bills itself as the world’s largest hog producer with farms that in 2017 raised 16.4 million pigs, and also controls a network of massive slaughterhouses.

Long before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the trend toward confining animals in large-scale facilities, and the increasing concentration of the slaughterhouse industry, had come under attack from critics who say the price for this meat fails to account for the full cost of production.

In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production noted the water pollution caused by the wastes that have escaped from the massive concentrated animal feeding operations. It cited health risks to workers that include exposure to toxic gas and dusts in the farm operations and high rates of injuries on the processing lines. It questioned whether such farms, which so tightly limit an animal’s movements, offer a decent life for these animals.

The Pew Commission also called attention to the widespread and routine use of antibiotics in large-scale operations to prevent and treat diseases that contribute to a broader crisis of resistant strains of bacteria in humans.

In 2015, Washington was the focus of an outbreak that underscored the dangers of such bacteria. That year, more than 192 people were sickened by a never seen before Salmonella strain resistant to four different antibiotics that was tracked to pork processed at Kapowsin Meats, a Pierce County slaughterhouse that no longer operates and likely obtained the suspect meat from Montana farmers.

The risks of antibiotic resistant bacteria were spotlighted in a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that noted such strains now kill some 35,000 people a year.

“Stop referring to a coming post-antibiotic era — it’s already here,” the report stated. “You and I are living in a time when some miracle drugs no longer perform miracles and families are being ripped apart by a microscopic enemy.”

Room to roam

Small farmers who raise fewer animals, give them plenty of space and don’t bring in a lot of livestock from other operators are less likely to use a large amount of antibiotics. Issa says she has yet to resort to these medications for the Mangalitsas, whose outdoor life and constant foraging helps to build up their immune systems.

“We depend on our soil and spacing to keep our animals safe,” Issa said.

Her farm is called The Sheepish Pig, and spreads along a coastal tract of largely cutover land — once scheduled to be a housing development — that offers striking views of Puget Sound and Mount Baker to the north. Issa had an unusual path to farming. Raised in California’s Mojave desert, she launched into a public-health career investigating HIV cases in Los Angeles County before moving to Issaquah in 1998. Then, in 2012 , she and her husband, who operates a logistics firm, and five boys moved to Kingston, where her interest in animals that could help clear brush from the land led to the arrival of the first Mangalitsas in 2016.

The Mangalitsas, which almost disappeared from eastern Europe during the Communist era, have enjoyed a renaissance during the past 20 years as a genetically pure throwback to an earlier era of animal husbandry. They have much smaller litters than the pink pigs raised in the Midwest, and grow much more slowly.

All of this adds to the expenses of such small-scale animal husbandry, but Issa has found customers with high-end restaurants and also through retail sales of offerings that range from ground pork at $12 dollars a pound to select tenderloin cuts that fetch more than $30 a pound.

This year, there is the added stress of trying to figure out how to get this meat to market. For the first time, she is selling some whole animals to consumers who will then have them killed and butchered by custom slaughterhouses, which are allowed to work without USDA inspectors so long as the products are not resold.

Meanwhile, for retails sales. she struggles to find USDA slaughterhouses willing to commit to dates to take her animals.

“It’s a big concern. We are so dependent on these processors.”

Smaller slaughterhouses

Since the pandemic hit, small slaughterhouses — like their much larger counterparts — have been scrambling to develop new protocols to try to protect their workers from COVID-19 and increase capacity.

During the spring, Revel Meat Co., based in Canby, Ore., was able to grow its workforce from 12 to 17 people and nearly double its output to up to 18 beef cattle, 40 pigs and 50 sheep each week.

It’s unclear whether such strong sales will continue as grocery-store offerings become plentiful.

But advocates of reshaping the Northwest meat industry are hopeful the pandemic marks a turning point, setting the stage for long-term expansion of the small-scale slaughterhouses.

That still is a difficult task.

Vegetarian alternatives and meat substitutes are gaining popularity, and corporations are investing in new technologies to grow meat from cells.

Meanwhile, slaughterhouses are hard businesses to run. Owners may find it difficult to recruit the skilled laborers who want to spend their time killing and cutting up animals, and paying them a living wage while turning a profit can be difficult.

Some want to boost the small scale industry by enabling custom slaughter operations — through an expanded state inspection program — to provide meat for retail markets. A Washington bill to make that happen was introduced to the state Legislature earlier this year.

Some say the federal government, which currently pays billions of dollars in farm subsidies each year, should provide more support for small meat plants. This money could start new businesses and help old ones expand.

Ben Meyer, co-owner of Revel Meat, said such aid could have a big impact.

“We have public sentiment behind us. Markets are strong and we need to keep these customers,” Meyer said.

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©2020 The Seattle Times

Auctioneer Garrett Sanford, right, calls bids from the crowd as pigs are sold at the Chehalis Livestock Market in Chehalis, Washington, on May 29, 2020. - Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/TNS