Featured Farmer: Ferlyn Hofer
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives over the past several months, from school and event cancellations, store and workplace closures and limited supplies of food and other products. We thank the essential workers in every industry who have worked diligently to keep us healthy, fed and safe, and send our condolences to those who have been sick or have lost loved ones to the virus. For the June Featured Farmer Profile, we spoke with Ferlyn Hofer, one of the South Dakota farmers who have been impacted by closures of pork processing plants.
Ferlyn Hofer began farming and raising pigs near Canistota, South Dakota, in 1978. He currently farms with his wife, Karen. Their son Nolan works full time on the farm, and Ryan is a full time electrician and crop farms with his parents.
The Hofers operate a farrow-to-finish farm, meaning they raise pigs from birth until those animals are ready for processing. After pigs are born and kept with sows for 14 to 21 days, they are moved to barns to finish until they weigh about 275 pounds.
For years, the Hofer family has delivered pigs to Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls. Their business, along with many other farmers in South Dakota and neighboring states, changed very quickly after the employees at the plant fell ill with the COVID-19 virus and the plant was temporarily closed in April. Processing plants in other states were closing as well, so there were no options to take pigs that were ready for market. (Click here to learn more about the food system and the impacts of COVID-19 on farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants and more.)
The pigs are raised in climate-controlled barns to protect them from disease as well as ever-changing South Dakota weather conditions. These barns are carefully planned to hold a consistent number of pigs – after one group of pigs is moved out, there are new piglets ready to move into that space in the barn. The barns are designed to be efficient and make sure each pen has what growing pigs need. Holding market-ready pigs for extra days, weeks, or months puts significant pressure on the systems, animal health, and barn capacity.
Faced with hundreds of pigs that were ready for market, but no confirmation on when the plant would re-open and knowing there would be a large backlog when it did, a number of South Dakota farmers quickly looked for other opportunities to sell pigs.
“We found out on a Saturday that the plant was shutting down. After talking with my sons and to livestock auctions in the area, we realized that we were up against the wall,” said Ferlyn. “That Tuesday, my son created a Facebook post offering to sell groups of 25 to 30 pigs at $100 per pig, hoping that a few people might be interested in meat for their freezer. My cell phone didn’t stop ringing for days – we were completely overwhelmed.”
The Hofers had sold pigs direct to people before, but just one or two at a time, mostly to friends and neighbors. In direct-from-farm sales, individuals typically purchase the animal from a farmer, then it is delivered to a local locker for processing. However, the family wasn’t initially prepared for the amount of calls and logistics required to coordinate deliveries, pickups and processing times for hundreds of pigs. Hofer said the first question was always to make sure that when someone was interested, they had made contact with a local meat processing plant or locker that would be able to process the hogs.
“I can’t say enough good things about all of the local lockers who have increased capacity to help out all the pig farmers who were trying to find places to take hogs,” he said. “They’ve been working nonstop this entire time and you can’t find better people anywhere than those working at the lockers across South Dakota and other states”
The Hofers received calls from people across South Dakota as well as Idaho, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma and more. In many cases, people formed groups with friends and neighbors to be able to purchase 25 to 30 pigs, then divide the meat after it is processed. Ferlyn also worked with several lockers or meat processing plants to deliver directly, then the plants sold finished meat to their customers.
“We were so humbled by the outreach and it was eye-opening to see the demand for pork in places where it isn’t easily available,” he said. “I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to meet so many people who are buying pork direct from a farmer for the first time. It was a new experience for many of them to be able to get boxes with smoked ham, pork roasts, sausage, ribs and more.”
As past-president of South Dakota Pork Producers Council, Ferlyn has seen the impact on producers across the state.
“We were all in this situation together, and it was impressive to see so many people working together to help each other,” he said.
The health of the pigs was a priority for farmers and the veterinarians, nutritionists and other professionals they work with, and farmers did their best to minimize overcrowding and other health issues.
“For farmers and veterinarians, our goal in life is to make sure pigs are as healthy as possible and produce the highest quality pork products as we can,” he said.
One risk to farms from increased direct selling is biosecurity. Inside barns, pigs are protected from disease and there are strict protocols for entering and delivering supplies to the barns. Trucks that deliver direct to processing plants follow similar protocols to ensure the health of the pigs and prevent disease from spreading between farms.
“Every time a trailer would arrive to pick up a small group of pigs, we asked about exposure to other pigs, and try to be as careful as possible to keep all the animals in the barn safe,” said Ferlyn.
Ferlyn expects the relationships he’s built with many of his new customers to last well into the future and has already had some people place orders for hogs in the fall or next spring. However, he is also very eager for the processing plants to be back to more normal capacity and to bring consistency back to his farm and the industry.
“This was the avenue we had to take and it worked for us this time, but I don’t know if it could have happened the same way during the winter or another time of year,” he said. “We don’t know what the future holds, we are just very thankful to everyone who worked extra hours or went out of their way to support all of the farmers here in South Dakota.”
NOTE: The South Dakota Pork Producers Council maintains lists of South Dakota farmers independently selling pigs as well as local lockers and meat processing facilities. For more information, click on the Producer Resources tab of their website.