When Wulfekuhle was starting out, business was good, prices were high. 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 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 to Tyson’s Waterloo plant, in part because he’s just 35 miles down the road. Unlike in the past, when shipments were scheduled weeks in advance, Wulfekuhle said, the plant has been operating on an hour-to-hour basis, underestimating how many animals it can process in a day because it is unclear how many workers will show up. In recent days, he said, employees there have called Wulfekuhle and other local producers at the last minute to see if they can send more inventory.
At Wulfekuhle’s farm, he and his employees, who all own a share of the business, have made little tweaks like adjusting the pigs’ diet and raising the temperatures inside the barns. After a life spent cultivating the best environment for healthy pigs, he had observed hogs at market weight, about 285 pounds, were happiest and ate the most in barns cooled to about 64 degrees.
To slow their growth down in recent weeks in hopes of buying extra time, he raised the thermostat to about 74 degrees.
“You don’t want to do anything to hurt the pig,” he said. “So you make it more like a sunny day, when they are more apt to lay around and not want to eat.”
Pigs, Wulfekuhle wryly noted, are a lot like humans in that way. “They keep restaurants chilly for a reason,” he said.
Barring any further disruptions, Wulfekuhle is hopeful he might be able to avoid euthanizing any of his animals. But he’s still nervous, worried about what could happen in coming weeks and months. He tries to stay positive in front of his staff.
“I’ve got to be the optimistic one and keep our spirits up,” he said. “But it’s hard. It’s sad. This is not anything you prepare for. … The unknown is the scariest part.”
At night, Wulfekuhle sometimes finds himself awake thinking about the numbers of hogs that could be euthanized, unable to fathom the estimates put forward by industry groups.
“You just can’t comprehend it,” he said. “I hope it’s not true. I hope we can figure some of this out, but it looks awful right now.”
That has led him to think a lot about past crises — the swine flu epidemic a decade ago, when he and other farmers desperately worked to keep their pigs safe; the 1980s farm crisis his farm barely survived. He had learned a lot about planning and resilience — enough to feel confident he would survive this latest crisis.
What has alarmed him is thinking about the younger farmers who probably won’t, further damaging an industry that desperately needs young blood to keep family farms across Iowa going. Already, he had heard of a few people preparing to file for bankruptcy. And in his small town, one of his neighbors from down the road recently went door to door asking if anyone wanted to buy his farm, a development that pained him.
“Agriculture has these vicious cycles, these boom and bust cycles where it can go really well, and then they just go horrible,” he said. “You just don’t want to have to sell at the very bottom when things are horrible and nobody has the money to buy. But that’s typically how it works. And it’s terrible.”
Wulfekuhle knows exactly how those farmers feel, that sense of desperation and distress. He has felt it, too, over the years.
“You just feel helpless,” he said. “And this isn’t their fault. This is their livelihood. They’ve risked a lot, and then the market does this to them, and they have no control over it. It’s nothing to do with what they’re doing. They could be doing a great job. It’s just out of their hands.”