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Smithfield Warns Shutdown Will Hurt Food Security… So Let’s Grow and Buy Local!

As he finally takes action to protect his Sioux Falls workforce and the entire city from the coronavirus that has broken out in his evidently unsanitary Sioux Falls plant, Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan sounds like he’s trying to raise fears about food security to justify a swift reopening:

Smithfield Foods is shutting down its Sioux Falls, S.D. facility, one of the largest pork processing facilities in the country, “until further notice.” The plant processes four to five percent of pork in the U.S., amounting to about 130 million servings per week.

“Smithfield will resume operations in Sioux Falls once further direction is received from local, state and federal officials,” the company said in a press release.

…Smithfield President and CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a statement that the closure of this and other protein plants is “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”

“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” he said. “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers.”

…“We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic,” he said. “We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19” [Justine Coleman, “Top Pork Producer Shutting SD Plan Indefinitely Amid Pandemic,” The Hill, 2020.04.12].

The repercussions for livestock farmers might actually be positive: instead of selling to the giant packers who are screwing them out of profits, the men and women who actually raise our hogs and chickens and cattle might realize they can cut out the corporate middlemen and make money selling their meat locally. That’s what Havana, North Dakota, rancher Lacey Block is advocating with her Ranchers Rebellion Beef Company:

“The traditional way beef is brought to the table is not working anymore; someone is making a whole lot of money and it isn’t the cow/calf guys, the backgrounders or the feedlot operators,” she explained.

…”For those who wanted beef directly off the farm, we’d haul the animal to the locker plant and then sell quarters. I had a good response from people.”

…This process allows Block to pay producers more on the backside with a reasonable price for consumers. She hopes to market beef from 100 critters through coolers and online this year.

…Production started the first part of March and meat is now available at the stores and through mail-order or delivery. The meat is hormone-free, from pasture-raised, grain-finished yearlings. The biggest obstacle is the kill capacity at the local facilities. But everything is in line and moving ahead.

She sells by-the-pound packages processed at a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant and distributed to freezers she owns in retail outlets such as Cliff’s One-Stop in Britton; Kwik Stop in Forman, N.C.; One Stop in Gwinner, N.D. and recently added Buck’s C-store on Interstate 29 in Peever [Connie Sieh Groop, “Rancher’s Rebellion Aims to Help Producers Get More for Their Meat,” Aberdeen American News, 2020.04.13].

Governor Kristi Noem cloaks her support for the Earl Butz ag-industrial complex’s crushing of small independent farmers in talk about “food security.” Maybe having 5% of our nation’s pork production concentrated in one plant that can be taken out by a virus outbreak or some other disaster isn’t such a good idea for food security. Maybe instead of handing out six-figure tax breaks to the giant CAFOs that feed Smithfield, the state should consider throwing its financial support behind the small ranchers and farmers who could feed their neighbors more resiliently amidst a pandemic or other breakdowns in the global corporate supply chain.

Related Reading: See Civil Eats’ article on how coronavirus could revive the Community-Supported Agriculture model:

As Americans are told to stay put, more are cooking at home and looking for healthy options to get through the coronavirus pandemic. Some people are still visiting farmers’ markets, but many fear the long lines and potentially contaminated carts at grocery stores. To the rescue are small-scale local farmers, ready to bring fresh food to their neighborhoods. From Vermont to Kentucky to Southern California, farms with existing CSA are seeing a massive increase in their memberships. Some farms have also started new ones.

Even CSA farms in Northern California, which already had thousands of members, have seen a boom; nearly all now have now have waitlists. The farmers at Terra Firma Farm in Winters, California, say they have never added so many additional box deliveries in such a short period of time. Rancho Gordo, an heirloom bean company in Napa that sells some of its product through Eatwell, saw 1,700 orders in one Saturday [Hannah Ricker and Mara Kardas-Nelson, “Community Supported Agriculture Is Surging Amid the Pandemic,” Civil Eats, 2020.04.09].

Hey hey, ho ho, corporate food has got to go….


  1. Dallis 2020-04-13 07:53

    While I would agree that corporate Ag has not treated the producer fairly. Selling a hundred head of beef through a local facility can work for some. This is good. But we are talking hundreds of thousands a week. Every week. And distribution. Not everyone knows what to do with a half of beef. There will be cuts they have never seen or cooked. Not everyone has access to a deep freeze to store a half of beef. The system may not be perfect but you can go to a store and buy the cut you want or a restaurant and buy your steak or prime rib.

  2. Donald Pay 2020-04-13 08:28

    Cory says: “Maybe having 5% of our nation’s pork production concentrated in one plant that can be taken out by a virus outbreak or some other disaster isn’t such a good idea for food security. Maybe instead of handing out six-figure tax breaks to the giant CAFOs that feed Smithfield, the state should consider throwing its financial support behind the small ranchers and farmers who could feed their neighbors more resiliently amidst a pandemic or other breakdowns in the global corporate supply chain.”

    Take out the “maybes.” Our system of food production is extremely insecure. If people thought about it from a war perspective, you wouldn’t want a concentrated food system that could be disrupted by a dozen well-placed missile or bomb attacks. You would want smaller, dispersed processors that were too difficult to be all taken out at once.

    We are going to have to progress forward with a “get smaller or get out” philosophy that values local or regional food production. It’s not just pork. South Carolina poultry farms are experiencing an outbreak of bird flu, and several flocks have already been de-populated. If this can’t be controlled, there will be another meat product that is going to be rocked by shortages and price hikes.

  3. mike from iowa 2020-04-13 09:18

    Eggs are 4-5 bucks a dozen in some areas. When the whole country was facing fears of bird flu, I never saw prices this high.

  4. jerry 2020-04-13 09:47

    Wall Meats in Wall, South Dakota has a meat wagon in Rapid City most days, sometimes two. According to the new owners, they buy local produced beef. I guess if Rounds and Thune won’t give us COOL, we will find our own way to be cool. Buy local.

    What about the pack in Aberdeen, maybe, just maybe, that might finally have some legs. Benda wasn’t killed for nothing…maybe

    There used to be a Kosher beef kill in Huron, as I remember, is that still going?

  5. Richard Schriever 2020-04-13 10:24

    Back in the late ’70s and early ’80’s when my uncle and I were operating a feedlot/farm operation (ranged from 300-500 head of cattle in the lots) I had an idea for building a butchering/meat selling operation right there on the farm. We had 10-20 head ready for slaughter pretty much any time. Just 1 1/4 off of I-29, 10 miles (at that time) south of SF. A good idea for farmer/feeders now, I’d think. AG bankers need to reorder their thinking a bit too, I’d say, to provide funding for this kind of approach.

    During the last revision of the Lincoln County Comprehensive Plan (2013?), I suggested creating a “transitional economic zone” labeled as “small operation or specialty agriculture”, to accommodate such things as vinaculture, orchards, small chicken and egg operations, vegetable/truck gardening, wool harvest and so on – where “farms” would be no more to 40 acres and could include on site retail sales.

    Such a zone would extend from adjacent to existing development out to about 5 miles. It was given consideration, but ultimately not adapted.

  6. mike from iowa 2020-04-13 10:38

    Mr Schriever’s idea sounds good, but, in a recession such as we are looking at can enough people afford to by beef/pork to keep even a smaller on-farm slaughter operation going?

  7. jerry 2020-04-13 11:19

    Even in a Depression, the price reflects what the market will bear. Mr. Schriever’s idea is as sound as Wall Meats is. First thing is to maybe consider a food truck to bring the meat to the consumer or close to them. Remember, there are many areas in our state that are food deserts.

    Even ranchers that grow their own beef, certainly do enjoy pork on their tables. Pulled pork is a whole different experience than shredded beef. So places that are even remote could benefit from a food truck that serves them.

    In the small villages of Europe, they have food trucks with fruit and vegetables that visit those places weekly or with bread, daily. Could that work here? Only if we have a post office to get those products delivered. Rounds and Thune want to eliminate post offices though, so they must be convinced.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-13 12:16

    So what is the viable alternative right now, Dallis? Are you saying we have no choice but to keep the meatpacking plants open and maintain the current supply chain, accepting the fact that we’ll lose thousands of workers to coroanvirus due to the unavoidable crowded factory conditions? What’s the solution here?

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-13 12:17

    I mean, heck, if shutting down Smithfield and the national pork supply means saving thousands of lives, I can go vegetarian for a few weeks. (But then who will ship me tomatoes until my garden blooms?)

  10. Dicta 2020-04-13 12:22

    I’m trying to envision what this growing and buying local supply chain would look like, how it could even get remotely close to the volume needed, and how we would enforce social distancing to prevent the continued spread of the virus.

  11. jerry 2020-04-13 12:38

    How about local canning from the local tomato/vegetable fields? We used to do that, why not do it again. Start up money can come from our taxes. Maybe high hope green houses with local help keeping tested and distanced from one another. Harvesting, grading and packaging could be observed and tested via skype. Fresh goes to market, and the rest goes to canning.

    Instead of Poet corn, sweet corn. Instead of Del Monte, Dell Rapids. Instead of Hunt’s, Blunt’s. You get the idea, let’s get regional. When I was a kid, Trisco could make flour for you at the local elevator. Hard work turning that crank, but you got flour very similar to this one

  12. Bob Newland 2020-04-13 13:07

    Praise the lord and pass the hydroxychloroquine.

  13. Bill Rosin 2020-04-13 13:17

    most farms and even ranches used to raise a few hogs. We used to raise a litter on our farm, unpenned, and unfed all summer except for a little grain once in awhile to keep them around. They did a lot of grazing, loved the low growing chickweeds, we turned them into our garden one spring and they pretty much tilled it for us, and one fall they dug up a well established patch of Canadian thistles and killed them. The CAFO’s boast of efficiency, but it’s efficiency of scale and labor, not energy in energy out efficiency. That snoot is there for a reason. And the pork from out outdoor pigs was NOT the “other white meat”, it had FLAVOR. And the lard had vitamin D from the sunshine.

  14. Dicta 2020-04-13 13:20

    The problem is, efficiency of labor means a reduced need (proportionally) for vectors of coronavirus. This is what troubles me. If we encourage “grow and buy local,” aren’t we increasing human interaction? And isn’t that precisely what we are attempting to discourage at the moment?

  15. jerry 2020-04-13 13:30

    It all comes down to testing. Anywhere food is grown for the public, each and every person who comes into contact with that food would need to be certified tested and monitored via skype for example. They would also need to be identified so there would be a need to make sure they were up to date on their shots and on their immigration status. We could fast track immigration right here so we can grow local and buy local.

  16. jerry 2020-04-13 13:33

    Thanks Rounds and Thune, another record day of the virus 138 in South Dakota. The three amigos of death and plague, trump, Rounds and Thune.

  17. jerry 2020-04-13 13:39

    Bill Rosin, you never worried much about snakes with those pigs on the loose either. A hog and a rattlesnake is no match for the snake.

    Probably won’t have a choice but to grow and provide locally.

    “”Americans are worried about food, many for the first time in their lives. While the U.S. government has said there are no nationwide shortages, that hasn’t stopped panic buying in supermarkets as coronavirus cases continue to tick upward.

    Yet the most immediate crisis ― according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University ― is not the availability of food, but its affordability to the tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs and income. Experts are already warning the coronavirus pandemic will make inequality worse in the United States, with reports of mothers skipping meals to feed their children.”

  18. mike from iowa 2020-04-13 13:44

    United states used to purchase excess food stuffs and save them for feeding unemployed and low wage earners. I remember cheese, butter, canned pork and beef, packaged rice etc being handed out. I think wingnuts pretty much ended the wasteful giveaways to people in need.

  19. Donald Pay 2020-04-13 13:45

    I like Jerry’s idea. We have a lot of families around Madison, WI, who rent small acreages for such produce, which they sell at farmers’ markets. The grocery store across the street specializes in local produce. It might not work in all climates and soils, but it’s a good way to use local land to feed local people.

    Even in the city, people can grow their own food. I first started growing stuff in the backyard when I was a kid. It was fun, and a great way to learn about how plants grow. Like most interesting kid things, I “grew out” of that for a time, but came back to it in my early 20s, where we snagged a garden on some previously idle land on the Augustana College campus. There are lots of spots in urban areas that could serve as urban gardening areas, as long as the plots are big enough to accommodate social distancing.

    Anyone with a house that has a yard can dig up some of the lawn and plant a garden. I wouldn’t say it is easy work, but with jobs on hold what have you got to do but provide for your own food security.

    We have a plot through the UW garden program. We are ready to plant lettuce, onions, radishes, snow peas and other early crops, but the weather has been cold here. We consume our own produce from May through October. We freeze a lot of stuff we can’t consume by ourselves and eat that through about the first of the year. We also give some away to our neighbors. We still have some squash from last year’s production that we got sick of eating. I’d say from late June through October we can survive without buying any veggies. Anything besides what we grow in our garden that we might need or want we get at local farmers’ markets through November. If we had triple the space and more energy, we could probably be self-sufficient through most years.

  20. Eve Fisher 2020-04-13 17:26

    BTW, before crying over Smithfield Foods, always remember that shutting down indefinitely is the CEO’s decision. All that Governor Noem and Mayor TenHaken wanted was 14 days of quarantine and deep cleaning. It’s CEO Sullivan’s decision to pick up his toys and go home in a snit.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-13 18:14

    Dicta, you do hit on the fundamental bind we’re in economically. Every alternative we think of for production involves gathering people together somewhere in the marketplace. The safest thing I can think of would be to build robot butchers whom every worker could control remotely. Imagine a nation of mechanical avatars: meat-cutters, vans, trucks, delivery drones, warehouse skidloaders, roofers and concrete layers… jobs all done by machines operated by workers sitting at home.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-13 18:19

    Eve, is it possible CEO Sullivan’s snit-fit is also meant to raise fears of a shortage and drive up prices Smithfield still has on the shelves and is churning out of its other facilities? NPR just reported that the fears of a meat shortage are exaggerated.

    Are we running out of hot dogs or pork chops? Are families unable to find substitutes? Is anyone going hungry?

    And hey, what about Impossible Pork, the plant-based substitute? How many people have to crowd into its factories to make fake pork? I wonder if there is something inherently more risky about the number of people who have to crowd together to slaughter animals that is reduced in the industrial processes that turn plant material into fake meat.

  23. Debbo 2020-04-13 21:22

    Having worked in a pork plant, I can attest that butchering can be safely done, but will require some rearranging and extending the lines.

    The workers are already gloved and gowned and possibly wearing face shields. Add shields for everyone and masks. Increase space between workers, which means fewer per foot of line.

    There’s also the option of having one worker do more than one cut. Pull the piece off the line and do 3-4 different cuts, then push it back on. That would make up some of the distancing deficit.

    There will still be an efficiency loss, regardless of exactly how it’s done, but workers will be safer. I don’t mean only from COVID-19, but safer from razor sharp knives flying about right next to them. It’s an extremely rare thing for a plant worker to come out of there without scars from accidental cuts and with all their fingers in tact.

    Even with reduced efficiency, product will still be coming out of the plant. The Smithfield execs could take 50% pay cuts to make up the difference.

    Oh. Silly me. Forget that last sentence. Exec pay is sacred. Everyone knows that.

  24. Eve Fisher 2020-04-14 07:55

    Cory, I think the snit-fit is to (1) deflect all blame away from Smithfield practices (true Trump style), (2) bully us into thinking, well the Smithfield way is the only way, and (3) make Noem & TenHaken beg them to come back as is.

    I just posted an article in FB, reminding everyone that back in September 2019, Sonny Perdue’s USDA gave the meat packers the gift of total deregulation of the meat packing industry – process those hogs as fast as you want, and far, far, far less inspections! And now we’re seeing the results across the nation – believe me, Smithfield isn’t the only plant seeing COVID-19 skyrocket, and having to close at least temporarily for cleaning, etc.

  25. David 2020-04-14 09:16

    When I moved to Missouri, I bought a house with wooded acreage containing lots and lots of deer and wild turkeys and then I bought a crossbow. My land is located within city limits, so by city ordinance, I can’t discharge a firearm, but since I own more than 5 acres, I can archery hunt. I’ve always preferred the taste of wild game over store-bought meat and since I process everything myself into roasts, steaks, summer sausage and ground meat, it is WAY cheaper than buying it all in a store (and much healthier for me). I hunt, I process, I put it in the deep freeze. I used to joke that the reason I bought a crossbow after buying a house with wooded acreage containing lots and lots of deer and wild turkeys was so I’d have a steady food source during the apocalypse. Crossbows are quitter than a firearm and crossbow bolts are reusable. People would tell me that was crazy, because like THAT would ever happen… But if trying to buy meat ends up like trying to buy toilet paper (which is still mostly non-existent on store shelves around here), I have one question… Who’s crazy now???

  26. jerry 2020-04-14 12:07

    The CIA warns employees to stay away from trump and GNOem’s voodoo medicine. So why are we trying to kill patients in a test that clearly may kill them. “Sudden death” is like…permanent, ain’t no ventilator gonna save your behind in that case.

    “The CIA has privately advised its workforce that taking an anti-malarial drug touted by President Trump and some of his supporters as a promising treatment for the novel coronavirus has potentially dangerous side effects, including sudden death.

    The warning, featured on a website for CIA employees with questions related to the spread of covid-19, came in late March after public discussion — and promotion by the president — that hydroxychloroquine, administered in concert with the antibiotic azithromycin, might prove effective against the disease.” Washington Post 4.14.20

    One term Kristi, may not even make the one term.

  27. Bernie 2020-04-14 13:14

    I was in Lemmon last summer, and discovered that a fine young family has started a local meat/butcher shop there and it seemed they were doing well. Here in Yankton, a long-established butcher shop next door to South Dakota Magazine just changed hands to the Kleinschmits, another young family from across the bridge. Check out their Facebook page, they have big plans. I once asked the former owner of the shop if he had a secret recipe for his amazing hot dogs and brats and he said not really … he just used real, high quality meats … no junk and scraps. I’m guessing that’s true of all our local shops. Support them if you have one nearby.

  28. Eve Fisher 2020-04-14 13:41

    I think a lot of us up here do use local butcher shops – I’ve used Jack’s Meat Market up in Madison for 30 years. We buy a lamb a year from a local farmer and have it processed at Jack’s.

  29. Debbo 2020-04-15 02:21

    The Strib has a good article about this, though Kruel Kristi and Smithfield probably wouldn’t like it. Here are a couple snippets:

    “experts in the food supply chain say it’s premature to worry about availability for consumers. Most processing plants are operating at full strength. And the decline in restaurant dining means that more food is available to be sold through groceries. Additionally, for pork, supplies in cold storage have risen recently.”

    (This was in the comments.)
    “My sister-in-law is a line worker at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant. The situation there is due to the ineptitude of the Smithfield “leadership” team. The comparison with JBS in Worthington just a one-hour drive east on I-90 makes that starkly clear. It would require a full article to describe the ridiculous “measures” this company took after ignoring for weeks what was happening in this plant. One example will illustrate though: last week workers were given BEARD GUARDS to wear as PPE. They would be about as effective against Coronavirus as mosquito netting. Now Mr. Sullivan cries the sky is falling because he’s being pressured to close this plant long enough to stop the spread of the virus in SD and among HIS OWN WORKERS!”

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