COVID-19 continues to ravage the marketing of meat and milk for farms across Minnesota.
Closures of hog slaughtering facilities in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa have upset marketing schedules, leaving pigs on the farm and causing headaches for farmers. Some producers are having to euthanize hogs since it is cheaper to do so rather than continue to feed them at a loss.
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In desperation, some farmers are searching for ways to sell their pigs. On Facebook, farmers are posting pigs for sale in the quest to find homes for half or whole hogs.
Zweber Farms, Elko New Market, was approached by local hog farmers who asked if they would be interested in buying some of their pigs as feeders. The Zwebers, Jon and Lisa, along with their son and daughter-in-law Tim and Emily, operate an organic dairy farm and raise grass-fed beef, pasture chicken and pork, and sell meats and eggs direct from their farm to consumers.
The Zwebers started raising small groups of feeder pigs more than two decades ago as a way to diversify their organic dairy farm business. Their business has seen steady growth over the years, and they started breeding their own sows just this year. Since March 1, their business has doubled.
Courtesy of Emily ZweberGROWING DIRECT MARKET: Zweber Farms, Elko New Market, Minn., started raising pork for direct farm-to-consumer sales about 25 years ago to diversify products available on their organic dairy farm.
“With empty store shelves, more customers are seeking direct-from-the-farm options,” Emily says. “Feeder pigs are typically hard to find and were a limiting factor on our business growth.”
The industry isn’t set up to sell feeders direct to farmers like ours, she adds, as animals are usually contracted and independent operations are becoming hard to find.
This scenario changed by early April when pork processing facilities started to close or greatly reduce production due to COVID-10 outbreaks among staff. Overnight, pork farmers had nowhere for their growing pigs to go.
Knowing they were raising some pigs, a handful of area farmers reached out to the Zwebers about raising their feeders.
“We suddenly had the option to purchase 100% to 200% more feeder pigs than we normally do,” Emily says. “Our first question was, ‘can we sell all these pigs?’”
Emily sent out a pre-order form via the farm’s website and on social media to see what the market was like. They offered consumers the choice of pre-ordering a whole or half hog and choosing either current, summer, fall or winter delivery. Within hours, they had preorders for 50% more sales than the previous year.
“I have never sold that many pigs so fast,” says Emily, adding that the number of pre-orders continue to grow.
“Now our limiting factor is butchering dates,” Tim says. “The smaller butchers just don’t have the space to increase production.”
The Zwebers use USDA and Minnesota Equal-To facilities for their butchering. Beyond that, there aren’t many choices.
“We are so thankful that we have great local butchers,” Tim adds. “They are working with us and increasing as much as they can. We pray that they all stay healthy.”
Currently, the Zwebers are helping two farmers. They took their first load of new feeders in mid-April. Another load was expected by late April to early May.
“Our customers expect our pigs to be raised in a certain way — on bedding pack in a large hoop build,” Emily says. “We cannot and won’t become an intensive raising operation. That isn’t what works for our family and farm.”
Currently, the sows and the feeders spilt a building.
“We are now considering raising the sows on pasture this summer to make space for more feeder pigs,” Tim says. “We will buy as many of these pigs as we can to help out fellow farmers, while at the same time keeping our standards the same.”
The Zwebers encourage farmers to consider direct marketing and if they do so, to make sure they do not undercharge for their products.
“There is a tendency to think you need to compete with Walmart or that something is better than nothing, but the market is showing that you can sell your pigs at a price that not only covers your input costs, but also your time. Farmers can look at our website to see our prices and to see that it is possible,” Emily says.
Click here to find the farm’s online ordering form.