‘The US food system is not broken’

Writing in the latest issue of Pig World, Trent Loos, a sixth generation US rancher and broadcaster from Central Nebraska, who aims to bridge the gap between rural food producers and their urban consumers, explains how the US pork supply chain is moving again after the disruption caused by COVID-19

Despite the headlines and the repeated messages from the competitors of milk and meat in the marketplace, the US food system is not broken.

It is true that we have wasted large amounts of high-quality nutrients in the past two months. I remember clearly the first day folks were talking about dumping milk and we dumped millions of gallons. My first thought was: “How can that happen?” 

Then, the first hog processing plant shut down and the dominos began to fall. The best estimate, heading into the last week of May, is that US pork producers will have euthanised over two million pigs.

I think it is worth noting that at no time did the Government cause a shutdown of the pork plants. In fact, at one time nearly 50% of daily capacity was offline and that was driven by employees not showing up to work. Most plants are back online and, while we are not running 100%, plants are getting the system back on track.

Plenty of naysayers are showing up on social media. I would like to point out that we started building this more vertically integrated system in the mid-1970s and one could argue that it has worked without a hiccup for 50 years. Of course the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘anything goes’ comes to mind since the world went into lockdown. 

It is worth pointing out that I am in the pig business myself. We have 100 purebred sows and sell breeding stock in addition to selling pork directly to consumers. We have been doing this aggressively for the past five years and we go to a small, family-owned, USDA-inspected butcher shop for processing, that employs 22 people.

The shop has also experienced COVID-19 worker shortages and shut for 10 days. This delayed our delivery of 14 market hogs by two weeks. It will not cause financial hardship, although the pigs will be eating feed for another 14 days. But I feel it is worth sharing because businesses of all sizes are subject to the same issues. 

Change for the good

The real question is: “How will all of this change things moving forward?” Clearly, in my mind, it will make all food producers stronger in every regard. I see the same positioning happening with UK farmers as I do with those in the US – I will grant that you, in many regards, have been a leader in what I see developing here.

We will continue to have the large pork systems that are vertically integrated and operate on economies of scale. Local food systems and local butchers shops will also have a new fire of life breathed into them. I see that as our job as pig farmers – to keep that flame burning going forward to increase our marketing options.  

In 2019, we saw tremendous growth in US pork production – 8% over 2018 – which allowed us to grow our export market to China by that same amount.

The US pork industry is very much dependent on the export market as, year in and year out, we expect to sell one of every four pigs we raise to another country. For that reason, I don’t see the big-scale production pulling back.

We may expect some further consolidation within the pork sector, but the good news in the growth of 2019 pork infrastructure is that it was accomplished by US family farmers who built several new pork-producing plants! 

I would like to emphasise that despite what the ‘fake meat’ crowd would like the global consumer to believe, the US food system is not broken. We have crossed a serious hurdle and the silver lining is that small and mid-sized pig farmers in the US have learned that they don’t need to use the large packing houses to market their pigs.

As the availability of meat in all grocery stores has been somewhat limited, consumers have gone to work to ‘find their farmer’, and that, my friends, is a win for all involved.

  • Three million listeners on nearly 100 radio stations in 19 states, plus online listeners, hear Trent’s radio show every day. See www.loostales.com

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