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How the pork industry is shifting to a new normal in the COVID-19 pandemic
When most U.S. restaurants shut down in the COVID-19 pandemic last week, David Newman’s pork company lost 95% of its customers in 48 hours. Newman and his family own Newman Farm Heritage Berkshire Pork, based in Myrtle, Missouri. He is also president of the National Pork Board and an animal science professor at Arkansas State University. Successful Farming caught up with Newman to get an update on how he and the Pork Board are dealing with disruption.
SF: Where are you headquartered during this pandemic?
DN: I’m at our farm in the Ozarks. We’ve been isolated our whole life, so it’s pretty easy for us.
SF: Labor is a concern for the pork industry, especially during a pandemic. What are you seeing?
DN: If we were to have a large group of people that would not be able to go to work, particularly in pork processing plants, that could create a big problem. If we don’t follow the CDC guidelines, we could potentially see something like that.
I have a PhD in meat science and have spent the last 20 years in and out of processing plants on a weekly basis. I visited two plants last week. The takeaway after meeting with leadership is that pigs are going to be processed. The plants are taking virus biosecurity to a new level. They are treating this very seriously and monitoring employee health.
SF: What about labor on farms?
DN: These are extraordinary times. We have never dealt with something on this scale. We have to get creative. We have people who have been reassigned doing things they don’t normally do.
The experience that producers had with the PED virus is helping us now. We thought we were bio-secure prior to PED, and then we learned there were choke points in our production systems. We got better and now our biosecurity is really good on farms. Measures we took to protect the health of our animals will also protect the health of our employees.
SF: What is happening at Newman Farm to deal with the pandemic?
DN: We have 15 families who raise hogs for this brand. Instead of panicking, we sat down as a team and said, we are going to rethink how we do sales. We are going to rethink how we work with our customers. More than anything, we are going to make sure our consumers have confidence in what we’re doing.
After the immediate surge of panic, restaurants got creative, adding curbside pick-up and delivery. Demand is still very good. Because we sell our own product, we put a huge focus on our online sales delivery points. Our goal is to keep as much pork out of cold storage as we possibly can.
The challenge is trying to get the logistics ironed out. Now that we are a week into this we are learning a whole new system, and learning it quite well. This is getting a little bit easier every day for us. We are going to be fine, we are going to get through it, and we are going to be better because of it.
SF: What is the Pork Checkoff doing in these trying times?
DN: On the homepage of pork.org, there is a COVID-19 resource page. The checkoff has been holding online webinars on business plans, workforce disruption, employee issues, and contingency plans, such as what would happen in the event of a feed disruption.
Our people are our most valuable resource. Making sure we get a lot of good information out to them is critical. We want our producers to know that the checkoff has their backs. We are doing everything we can from a production side and a consumer side. As a producer, I understand the reality and the stress of the situation.
SF: What do you see on the consumer side?
DN: Pork demand is very high. People have kids at home and they are eating more meals together. We want them to understand how versatile pork is. We want them to keep consuming pork. We have a lot of resources out there for consumers, not just producers. If you look out globally, pork demand is very good.