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Pork producers take a hit on misinformation

Staff writer

Marion County farmers who raise pigs are upset that the H1N1 flu virus that has spread throughout the world has been mislabeled “swine flu.”

That unfounded, commonly used term has cost them thousands of dollars because of lower prices brought on by decreased demand for pork.

Not many pork producers remain in the area. Most still in business are in north-central Marion County. The swine flu misnomer may be the last straw for some of them.

Jeff Bina of Pilsen has a 600-head feeder-pig operation. He views the current situation as a perception problem.

Bina purchases 40- to 60-pound feeders through an order buyer and sells them four or five months later, weighing 270 to 280 pounds.

“I’m just trying to break even,” he said. “The price went down during the last week and a half. Right now, I’m losing $10 to $15 a head.”

Francis Jirak owns a farrow-to-finish operation near Tampa. He recently reduced his 70-sow herd to 40.

Jirak said the swine flu designation has been devastating. The price he received for fat hogs a year ago was 60 cents a pound. It now is less than 40 cents. Cull sows sold at livestock sale barns bring closer to 30 cents, he said.

“What ticks me off is, it (the H1N1 virus) has nothing to do with swine,” he said. “You can’t get it from eating pork.”

The new strain of the H1N1 virus was discovered in North America this year. It was dubbed swine flu because initial testing showed many of the genes in the virus were similar to flu viruses normally occurring in North American swine. Further research has shown that the new strain was not previously reported in pigs.

The virus first showed up in Mexico last fall. Much like what happened in the 1918 flu epidemic, it appears that humans passed the virus to pigs.

In May, pigs in Alberta, Canada, were suspected of catching the new flu strain from a farm worker who returned from Mexico and then showed symptoms of the disease.

As human cases spread, several countries immediately ceased importing pork from the United States. Domestic consumption also dropped, driving the price down.

Fortunately for Bina, his hog operation is a relatively small part of his farming enterprise. He has a 750-head cattle-feeding operation, and he and his father, Dean Bina, farm 1,200 acres.

He said he has an advantage over farrow-to-finish operations because right now he is buying feeder pigs at less than the cost of production. Also, he can get in and out of the hog business pretty fast.

He is optimistic about the future of the business.

“You live on your equity as long as you can,” he said. “There is going to be a day the market will improve, and there will be a lot of money made.”

At 64 years old, Jirak’s view of the future isn’t as positive.

“I’m still kicking, but I’m not enjoying it,” he said. “The future of the small pork producer is pretty grim.”

Jirak’s hog operation is a large part of his farming enterprise. He farms 480 acres and has a 20-head cow herd. He raises feed for his pigs and purchases supplements to enhance the feed.

Jirak has been producing pigs for 48 years, ever since being a 4-H member in high school.

He said 40 years ago, 400-head operations were common. Then the big companies came in and took over production.

Ten years ago, he said, fat hogs were shipped from Hillsboro. Pick ups were twice weekly.

Now, 8 to 10 area producers take their market hogs to Tampa once a week. They are loaded onto a semitrailer and shipped to a Farmland packing plant at Crete, Neb.

“Hogs are hard on buildings and equipment,” Jirak said. “My buildings are old, and I’m down to using baling wire and duct tape to hold things together. I don’t know where I am going to go from here. I’m tired of fighting it.”

Last modified Aug. 20, 2009

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