Desperate Farmers Are Selling Pigs on Craigslist

CC BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons

With slaughterhouses closed, they're doing anything to avoid mass euthanasia.

Earlier this month, a pig farmer named Chad Lubben from Minnesota was so desperate to get rid of his pigs, which are ready for butchering, that he created a Craigslist ad in hopes that nearby community members would buy them. The alternative? Euthanizing them in his yard and paying someone to haul the carcasses away, because the usual plan of sending them to a meatpacking plant and getting their meat to market has been ruined by the coronavirus.

CNN reported earlier this month that Lubben isn't the only one who is turning to desperate measures to offload surplus livestock.

"Animals that should have been brought to market are instead piling up in barns and pastures – and with processing facilities sitting idle, farmers often have nowhere to put their livestock to make room for the next generation. Some, like Lubben, have turned to Craigslist and social media recently in a desperate attempt to offload animals they may otherwise have to euthanize."

After managing to deliver one-third of his animals to a slaughterhouse at the end of April, before the widespread plant closures began, Lubben has been left with 1,600 pigs that need to go before May 23, when a new batch of 2,400 pigs arrives. So he listed them at $80 a head, hoping that at last 200 would sell in this unconventional way. He told CNN, "I'm losing $70 a pig right now, but I figure if I can make $80, at least it's better than zero when it comes to euthanization."

The situation is dire for many pig farmers across the U.S. The New York Times reported that in Iowa, the largest pork-producing state, "agricultural officials expect the backlog to reach 600,000 hogs over the next six weeks. In Minnesota, an estimated 90,000 pigs have been killed on farms since the meat plants began closing last month." Farmers are taking unprecedented measures to abort sow pregnancies to reduce the number of piglets being born, to reformulate feed to discourage weight gain, and to raise barn temperatures to make the animals less interested in eating.

The government is making some efforts to help these farmers, such as announcing a plan to buy $100 million of surplus meat each month and offering psychological counseling services to farmers who've had to euthanize large numbers of fully-grown animals. There are limited funds available from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to pay for disposal of carcasses, and growing pressure on the government to pay for the cost of animals that have been culled. The president's order to keep meatpacking plants open may be an attempt to relieve the backlog somewhat, but unfortunately, it just trades one crisis for another, putting workers at extreme risk of infection by the coronavirus.

The entire situation, which is horrible from every angle, highlights a fundamental flaw – the centralization of the food system. We've been so obsessed with efficiency and affordability that we have no recourse in emergencies like this one; the small meatpacking plants have all disappeared and, when the big ones go down, there are no alternatives for farmers. From the New York Times:

"Like the dumping of fresh milk and destruction of fresh vegetables on farms, the waste of viable livestock shows how finely calibrated and concentrated the American agricultural system has become after decades of consolidation. There are relatively few plants equipped to process most of the nation’s pork, leaving farmers with no real alternatives when the largest facilities close."

It brings to mind chef Dan Barber's words from an article I wrote yesterday. "Efficiency is death," he said. "We suffer at the whim of a consolidated food system that overall has some efficiencies and is cheaper, but in the end is not worth it." Those pig farmers would likely say it's not worth it these days. There is fear the pork industry may be damaged for decades, the lingering emotional and psychological trauma of this experience driving bankruptcies and suicides.

Lubben's Craigslist ad is now gone, but when I clicked on other listings from his region, I found similar offers: "Feeder pigs for sale. 20 head. Vaccinated and ready to go May 16-22 Weighing 40#. Will sell any number." It's a heartbreaking scenario that will repeat itself for as long as we continue to produce food in this way. The system must be changed – decentralized, localized, shrunk to a more manageable and humane scale before we're going to hear the end of these horror stories.