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Megaproducers New Trend for Hog Raising.

State Capital Bureau

May 09, 1995

NOTE: Sidebar to main story HOGS1.HTM.

UNIONVILLE, Mo. _ Outside a pig sty in Sullivan County, farmer Keith Swearengen's daughter, Megan, hoists a squealing, squirming, bright-pink piglet. She rests the hog on her shoulder.

"See, this is what I'd like to pass on," Swearengen said. "If my kids want to be in the business, they should be able to do it. But I don't know if the megaproducers will let us. We put everything we had into this place for 20 years and now we can't open the windows."

Like the poultry industry decades ago, hog raising is undergoing a major shift away from independent family farmers like Swearengen.

The rise of megaproducers is pushing small farmers out of the market. In northern Missouri, for example, Premium Standard Farms operates its own packing plant and provides hogs to other area meat packers.

"I need to have a market," Swearengen said. "I can make a profit, but not a living. They've provided jobs, but at what cost."

Small farmers are picking up the tab as the megaproducers expand, M.U. extension economist John Ikerd said.

Large-scale producers are more efficient than small farmers, he said. For each job megaproducers create, three are lost in family farming.

Between 1980 and 1994, the number of hog farms in the United States fell 65 percent. Small farmers with fewer than 100 hogs made up the vast majority of the failed farms.

If megaproducers as large as PSF were the norm, experts say, only about 50 hog operations could satisfy the nation's hunger for pork.

The experience of North Carolina, the national pacesetter in the trend toward corporate production, shows the drastic effects of megaproducers on independent farmers.

The number of producers in North Carolina declined 47 percent in a five-year period during which total hog production in the state doubled. The change left many hog farmers with a tough choice between quitting or cooperating with the megaproducers.

"Contract farming is the only thing you can do," said C. Brice Ratchford, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at M.U.

Contract farming is similar to sharecropping. Farmers don't own a single hog _ they are paid by megaproducers to raise them.

"When you lose your market, then you're out of business," Ratchford said.

Swearengen also is pessimistic. "I have a limited time left," he said.