The NPA’s Pig Industry Group (PIG) has called for collective supply chain action, backed by Government support, to help alleviate a crisis that threatens to rip the heart out of the industry.
During a passionate and constructive meeting in Warwickshire on Tuesday, producer and allied industry members of the NPA’s ruling body set out how the current perfect storm of events is putting untold pressure on individuals and their families and staff up and down the country. They discussed at length possible solutions, including urging processors to work together to help avert a welfare crisis on farms, and urged the Government to do more.
This is the biggest crisis the pig sector has experienced since the dark days of the late-1990s and early 2000s, as pigs continue to back up on farms in large numbers, leaving producers fearing for the welfare of their animals.
“I have never known it as bad as it is,” said one northern producer representative. “Generally, people are struggling to get pigs away – and they can’t see where it’s going and how it’s going to improve. This is as bad a place as I can remember.”
A southern representative who had spoken to a number of producers before the meeting added: “Everything is stocked to the gunnels. People have started to use their contingency plans – pigs are outside on stubble, but we have only got a couple of weeks. It is bleak, really bleak – there is no space left.”
These sentiments were echoed around the table. The sheer scale of the problem was highlighted by a representative from one of the pig marketing groups, who is struggling week after week to find places for the pigs coming forward from producers.
“Everywhere you look, it is desperate,” he said. “We are running out of space. There are people asking for money to pay feed bills, pay staff. There are people who don’t know how to get through tomorrow.”
These backlogs on farm are coming at a time of sustained record costs of production, underpinned by high cereal and protein prices, and falling pig prices due to the issues processors are facing and plummeting EU prices, making imports more competitive. Producers have been losing, on average, around £25 on every pig they produce this year.
The NPA already knows of producers with 22,000 sows who have left the industry, while many others have or are planning to reduce sow numbers.
“It is not just the current situation, but the raft of legislation coming down the line – the Farming Rules for Water are an additional headache and the final straw for some,” said NPA chief executive Zoe Davies. “If things don’t change soon, we will see a serious contraction of our industry that we may never recover from.”
Why is this happening?
Processor representatives explained how between them they currently have thousands of vacancies across their sites they are unable to fill, despite extensive efforts to recruit more people locally, make the roles more attractive and to bring in more workers from outside Europe. Butchers and drivers are in particularly short supply.
There are no signs of the staffing issues easing, despite the end of the furlough scheme. Many EU workers have gone home due to a combination of new Brexit restrictions and COVID and are unlikely to return. Representatives from other allied sectors confirmed they were experiencing similar issues.
The meeting discussed various avenues to find solutions, including Government help, dipping into AHDB reserves and collective industry initiatives.
So far, the Government has shown sympathy, but done nothing to help, Dr Davies said. Defra Ministers have already rejected NPA calls for COVID compensation for producers previously hit by the pandemic and the loss of China exports.
Ministers have shown no interest in food industry calls for temporary COVID Recovery Visa’s to help ease labour shortages, continuing to insist the answer lies in making jobs more attractive to domestic labour.
There has been little interest in any potential welfare initiative to help producers remove pigs from farms when, and if, it comes to that.
Ministers have also told AHDB that substantial contingency funds collected from pork levy payers over the years cannot be used to support producers in the current situation.
While accepting that there are legal restraints in place, the PIG tasked AHDB to bring forward plans for how they could access the levy to bring some immediate relief to producers who can no longer sustain backlogs. “We want them to be more inventive with possible solutions,” Dr Davies added.
PIG called for processors to work together and come up with a plan for the backlog, and also what can be done with bigger pigs that can’t go down lines because they are now too heavy.
Processor representatives said they would raise the issue again at senior management level and agreed that they needed to work together to avoid serious welfare problems building up on farm.
A PIG working group is being brought together to continue NPA focus on potential solutions.
“We will continue to raise awareness and press the Government to act through all our available channels. However, I genuinely believe, whether the Government is prepared to help or not, that the solution must lie within the supply chain,” Dr Davies added.