WILLMAR, Minn. -- People who are worried about a potential shortage of pork in grocery stores because COVID-19 has temporarily shut down a number of meatpacking plants have been buying hogs directly from farmers this spring.

If you’ve been on Facebook or Craigslist you’ve likely seen the offers — and sometimes pleas — from central Minnesota hog farmers looking for buyers for their market-ready animals.

Oftentimes the price for a 240- to 300-pound hog is less than the break-even cost to raise the animal.

“Not making anything at this price, but with the large slaughter plants closed we don't want to see this good meat go to waste. Our loss! Your gain!” said one Craigslist post.

Faced with the possibility of euthanizing and composting their livestock, farmers are eager to find local buyers for their hogs. And consumers who are eager to fill their deep freezes are buying them.

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Purchasing a live hog or two could be a good deal, but unless you already have an appointment made with a local processor, you could be feeding and housing that pig for a couple weeks or even months.

Small processors in the region are reporting that their phones have been ringing off the hook since last month’s shutdown of processing facilities created a backlog in the livestock supply chain.

“Our phones have never stopped ringing,” said Nathan Jenniges, from Jenniges Meats in Brooten. “It’s just crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

This is typically the slow time of the year for the family-owned processor. They typically process just a couple hogs each week but are now doing 20 a week and are booked into August.

They are also getting daily requests to butcher beef and have increased the number they typically process this time of year.

During a 10-day period, Jenniges said they made appointments for 300 head of livestock (beef and hogs), including a two-day period when they took calls for 90 hogs to be processed.

“A lot of people are scared they’re not going to get meat. We’re trying our best to help people,” said Jenniges, who has turned away many requests, despite increasing work hours.

Jenniges said they have added some night shifts to keep up with the demand and hired a couple of high schoolers — who aren’t busy with school activities because of the coronavirus — to help cut meat.

A shortage of cooler space is the primary issue for many small processors.

Tami Paskewitz, marketing manager of Prairie Meats of Danube, said they are booked for beef until the end of August and “cannot physically take any more” hogs at this time and are asking customers to call back at the end of summer.

“The past two weeks have been absolutely crazy,” said Paskewitz. “We’ve been so swamped with calls.”

She said 90% of the calls have been for requests to process hogs. “Unfortunately, we can’t take any more at this time,” she said.

Prairie Meats plans to move this spring to a new, larger location in Olivia where the business will not only have increased capacity but will also have USDA inspections to allow retail sale of meat.

Across the state

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a list of small locker plants on its website, but Paskewitz said from what she’s heard from people who have called multiple locker plants, they are booked.

For those individuals who bought a hog and cannot schedule an appointment with a processor, the University of Minnesota Extension Service has issued a guide with tips on how to take care of hogs until they can be butchered.

“Due to great demand on meat locker services, consumers may need to wait several days to several weeks before pigs can be harvested. During this wait, consumers will need to care for heavy pigs to maintain pig welfare, control pig growth to prevent them from getting too big, and preserve pork quality,” reads the paper, which can be found online at blog-swine.extension.umn.edu/

Sarah Schieck Boelke, who specializes in swine education with the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Willmar, said Extension is now working on educational material that could help people butcher a hog themselves if they cannot find a processor able to fit them in.

Jenniges said even though they are working hard to meet the increased needs of farmers and consumers, small processors like theirs cannot replace the large facilities that can butcher 20,000 hogs a day. “That would be eight years of work for us,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Jenniges said he hopes this pandemic has brought to light how important small processors are to the state’s food supply chain.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has grants available to help livestock processors respond to market issues caused by COVID-19 by increasing slaughter, processing and storage capacity for livestock products until existing markets return or new markets are developed.

During a recent statewide video conference on rural issues, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said the state has about 300 small locker plants and most are booked for several months. He said the $5,000 grants can help the facilities meet the increased needs of the state’s livestock producers. “We’ll work with them,” said Petersen.

But because many local shops can only do 10 hogs a day — or less — and JBS can do 20,000 hogs a day, the “magnitude” of the current plant closures is significant. Petersen said 80% of Minnesota’s pork was processed at JBS, which has started to reopen its facility this week in Worthington.