H1N1 Has Hit Pig Farmers Hard

MASSACHUSETTS, US - A report of how one the business of two pig farmers in the state has suffered in the wake of the H1N1 flu crisis.
calendar icon 29 June 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

Pig farming: As a profession, it is uniquely unglamorous, according to MassLive. Yet, it has a long and honorable tradition, and on the Earle M. Parsons & Sons' farm in Hadley, the tradition is especially long. After all, a Parsons was among the first settlers of Northampton, and there's been a Parsons farming in the area for 12 generations.

The farm also had a profitable tradition until late April, when a flu virus emerged in Mexico that was quickly dubbed the swine flu. Across the world, as the strain spread, the situation rapidly became a pig or hog farmer's worst nightmare.

"Due to the overreaction, the pork market took quite a dive for several days after it hit the press. And, it hasn't come back yet," said Matthew J. Parsons, a partner with his cousin Earle in the farm, which sells about 2,500 pigs a year. A hog is generally thought of as a pig of more than 120 pounds, and the Parsons family markets most of their pigs before they reach 100 pounds.

"The price had been about 67 cents a pound, but it went down into the 30s. Wholesalers were nervous that consumers would not purchase pork, so they did not purchase as much nationwide," he said.

Pork prices have since recovered some, but they are still 10 to 15 percent below the level prior to the flu outbreak. Prices are also down because of the poor economy, which has reduced demand for pork products. Initial fears that the flu would prove to be the deadly global pandemic that had been predicted for years were not borne out. In fact, the swine flu has been milder than many other flu strains that regularly appear during the flu season, and it has produced fewer deaths.

In a typical flu season in the United States, 36,000 people die from influenza or its complications, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. As of 25 June, the swine flu, formally named H1N1, had sickened nearly 28,000 people in the United States, including nearly 1,300 cases in Massachusetts, and it had been linked to 127 deaths nationwide.

Michael A. Cahill, the director of the Division of Animal Health for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, told MassLive it was unfortunate that the virus took on the name swine flu.

"It's not appropriate," Mr Cahill said. "I don't know who named it, but shortly after that, it was renamed H1N1. There are pieces of the virus ... that resemble other kinds of flu, and there is also a human influence in the virus. But there is zero connection to pig farming whatsoever, even in Mexico."

"For consumers, there is really no risk," Mr Cahill added. "Just like any meat, pork needs to be handled appropriately and cooked appropriately. But, the flu virus couldn't be transmitted that way."

Pig farming is certainly not big business in the Pioneer Valley, which, with its generally rich soil, is better known for its crops, from tobacco and sweet corn to squash and asparagus. But livestock farming has a place here, especially on land that is not great for planting, such as on rocky hillsides or in locations where the soil drains poorly.

Throughout the US in 2008, there were 66.8 million hogs and pigs raised, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In Massachusetts, there were about 10,000 head raised.

Wayne E. Walton and his wife Monica operate the Carl Popielarz Pig Farm in South Hadley. They are the fourth generation in the family to do so. They raise about 250 pigs a year, typically selling them to a slaughterhouse in upstate New York. Their pigs take about two months to reach marketable weight, going from around a pound at birth to 40 pounds when they're sold.

"I've been doing this for the past six years. I took over my grandfather's pig farm, which has been in the family for 86 years," Mr Walton told MassLive. "It's constant work, but I have a lot of help."

Mr Walton may be the definition of a workaholic. He's at the farm at 05:30 in the morning, doing chores. Then he goes to his full-time job with the South Hadley Water Department. In addition, he has an excavation business, which he said is the major source of his income.

"The only thing I know how to do is work," he said. "The work on the farm is cleaning and feeding for the most part. The feeding is usually about a two-hour process. Then you have to clean the pens. Then you may have to do things like repair fences. But most of the time, I find it pretty enjoyable."

Pigs have a reputation for being ornery [cantankerous], but from his experience it's undeserved, Mr Walton said. "They're very good-natured."

However, their reputation for questionable table manners is deserved. Indeed, he said, they eat like pigs. "Absolutely. Just like a pig, they chew with their mouths open."

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