Hog farmers struggle as pork producers go belly up

On a recent camping trip with his son's Cub Scout troop, Curtis Barwick ended a talk about his job managing contracts for the now-bankrupt Coharie Hog Farms with a desperate plea.

"I really don't care if you eat the sausage or not," Barwick told the Scouts. "Just buy it."

North Carolina's hog industry needs all the customers it can get to bring it back, Scouts included.

After two years of losses, Clinton-based Coharie and three smaller North Carolina pork producers recently declared bankruptcy, causing scores of grain and hog farmers to lose once-stable contracts to raise hogs.

Many hog farmers fear that other companies could go under or greatly reduce their contracts, further damaging the hog-dependent Eastern North Carolina economy.

The average cost of raising a hog is now $20 more than the hog is worth at sale, thanks to high grain prices and weak demand, said Don Butler, the president of the National Pork Producers Council, who works for Murphy-Brown, a Warsaw hog and turkey company.

"Everybody's bleeding out of this," said Jay Sullivan, a fourth-generation farmer with a 900-acre Sampson County farm raising hogs and growing grain. "We're going to need a little help."

Sullivan raised 3,000 hogs a year for Coharie but will have empty barns in January unless he can find another hog company to replace what was 35 percent of his income.

North Carolina has the second-largest hog industry in the country. The $2.2 billion in 2008 cash receipts was 22 percent of all cash receipts from farming in the state, according to the state's Agriculture Department.

The industry's problems are complicated, with blame attributed to the net effect of high grain prices, less consumer demand for pork and the emergence this April of H1N1, frequently called swine flu.

Several countries, including China and Russia, closed their borders to U.S. pork products despite assurances from U.S. health experts that the swine flu wasn't connected to meat consumption.

Coharie, based 60 miles southeast of Raleigh, was the latest and biggest casualty. The independent producer, run by the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth and once the 22nd-largest in the country, had 170 employees and contracted with more than 100 farms in the Sampson County area.

Other companies that went under this year include Bunting Swine of Edgecombe County and Coastal Plains Pork and Perfect Pig, both based in Sampson County.