MANKATO, Minn. — In an already tight market, hog producers are worrying a new law out of California will cause many farmers to close up shop and go out of business.
Proposition 12, as it’s known, was upheld last week at the U.S. Supreme Court and will go into effect this summer. Prop 12, approved by the state’s voters in a referendum, requires the nation’s $20 billion pork industry to ban the sale of all pork from mother pigs housed in cages or crowded group pens with less than 24 square feet each.
“What happened last Thursday is the Supreme Court ruled in favor of California Prop 12, against the pork producers, which means Prop 12 goes into effect July 1,” said Lori Stevermer of Easton, who is a hog finisher serving as president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council.
She has nine years experience on the Minnesota Pork Producers Council’s executive board. “The MPPC is working with the state of California to get things implemented and to get pork to the state, basically.”
Paul FitzSimmons is part of a management company that produces nearly a million pigs a year, from farms mostly within 50 miles of Mankato. He also farms with his brothers and other partners and with them raises 200,000 pigs a year.
At age 65, FitzSimmons says he’s been farming “forever,” and is adamantly opposed to Prop 12. “I’ve been opposed to Prop 12 ever since it went in from California,” he said.
“Where do you want me to start?” asked hog producer Matt Lantz of Lake Crystal, who operates hog producer Lantz Enterprises with his brother and son. “It’s disappointing. There’s no real science behind the need for 24 square feet.
“We have sows in crates and in pens. Our sows in pens are in 18 square feet and can do everything that the Prop 12 requirement requests, but with 25 percent less space. So it’s pretty frustrating really. I don’t as a hog producer see a whole lot of positives out of this,” Lantz said.
“It’s going to cause smaller farmers to go out of business,” he added. “It’s not a good thing for hog producers, but even more so for smaller hog producers.”
FitzSimmons said he “takes offense to somebody in California telling us we do things inhumanely. We’re the ones in the barns to see it.”
The impact for regional farmers is huge, farmers agree. Blue Earth County is the second largest pork producer in Minnesota, behind only Martin County. Watonwan County is fourth, Waseca County 13th and Nicollet County 14th.
The other rub for Minnesota pork producers is that California produces so few hogs but is now legislating how hogs are raised in Minnesota and beyond. California is said to produce 1% of the pork in the country and consumes 14 to 15% of the nation’s pork, though FitzSimmons said he questions that consumption statistic.
“The decision back from the court on Prop 12 is very disappointing,” Stevermer said. “All along our concern with Prop 12 is because one state, California, and legislators there are telling farmers in Minnesota how we should raise pigs. That’s a big overreach. It’s not right.”
“To be dictated by a law made in California to govern Midwest producers is just wrong,” Lantz said. “They know no more about raising animals than we do. If I thought there was an advantage to this, we would’ve adopted that technology already.”
Kent Thiesse, a farm management analyst at MinnStar Bank in Lake Crystal, said Prop 12 adds a lot of extra cost throughout the system. Hog producers will need to have two separate systems, one that produces pigs for California and another that produces pigs for other states.
A commercial producer will have to spend $1,500 to $2,500 a sow to upgrade their barns, he said, and facilities to make them comply with California standards. Many area farmers produce pigs for large facilities such as Hormel, JBS and Tyson Foods, which sell to California.
“Even if you are building new, obviously to build more space the cost per unit of production will go up,” Thiesse said. “There will be added cost to comply and potentially added labor.”
Stevermer seconds that, saying the trickle-down effect throughout the agriculture world will be felt if Proposition 12 goes forward as planned.
If we take it beyond pigs, she said, pigs eat corn and soybean meal, so the pork industry in Minnesota also supports corn and soybean farmers.
“It’s big,” she said. “If farmers don’t make money, they don’t need as many feed mills, they don’t need equipment. So now all of a sudden agriculture business is affected, too. It has far-reaching effects.”
Prop 12 will result in less pork being on the market, the producers said, and higher costs for consumers on what is currently seen as an economical, healthy meat alternative to beef.
FitzSimmons said hog farmers are already struggling and now this compounds their issues.
“Well, the cost of production for the producer will go up,” he said. “The hog industry has been, since mid-August or October of last year, we’ve been losing money on every pig walked into the market anyway. This will just make it worse.”