Chicago Tribune: Illinois contract pig farmer: Work is low-paying, physically punishing

Jeff Seabaugh’s confinement operation in Montgomery County, Ill., finishes about 20,000 hogs each year. They arrive at 3 weeks old and are trucked to market some five months later when they’ve reached 250 to 300 pounds. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

by David Jackson and Gary Marx | August 8, 2017

The low-slung sheds where some 20,000 pigs grow to market weight each year are unmarked by any business sign or attempt at beautification. Baling wire secures fraying plastic windscreens to the wood and concrete buildings. Everything seems gray, rusted, peeling or patched.

Not far from the entrance, a dumpster is stacked with dead piglets. Farm dogs root stray animal parts from the ground and carry them off, tails wagging.

When Jeff Seabaugh pushes open the door, a fierce, putrid smell stings and immobilizes a first-time visitor, like a hard slap in the face. But the confinement owner has already sprung to work, beginning the physically punishing and low-paying labor that sustains Illinois’ $1.5 billion pork industry.

Under the arrangements that now dominate swine production, “contract” farmers like Seabaugh own the confinement buildings, raise the thousands of pigs inside and manage the millions of gallons of waste produced. But the animals are the property of larger companies that pay these growers a “pig space” fee and dictate conditions of care, including supplying the feed and medications.

Some operators have prospered under the contract system, but the agreements also can lock farmers into a life of grinding toil and leave them barely able to make their bank payments. Seabaugh likens himself to an indentured servant, saying he earns just a living wage for grueling workdays 365 days a year.

“If I wasn’t in it so deep, I’d never do it again,” he said.

Pig farmer Jeff Seabaugh tells what it’s like to raise hogs on contract for big pork companies. The work is physically punishing, low-paying and never-ending.

The system can also inflict misery on surrounding communities when financially strapped confinement owners fail to control noxious air emissions and poisonous manure spills. Seabaugh is fighting a suit filed by his neighbors over airborne gases they say damaged their lives.

The problems are a disappointment to one central Illinois farmer who helped develop new methods of raising pigs in the years following World War II, moving the animals out of muddy pastures and into automated confinements that greatly boosted productivity. The optimism of those early years dissipated as hog production became concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations, hastening the end in Illinois of small farms where families raise both crops and livestock.

“Simply put, corporations took over the hog business,” said 93-year-old Harold Steele, one of the state’s hog pioneers. “Where does this put ‘we the people’? Into a garbage can.”

Seabaugh borrowed millions of dollars to buy or construct his facilities but has struggled to repay bank loans. His hog confinements have generated upward of $2 million in annual revenue, but most of that money goes to the large packing houses and suppliers that own the pigs he raises, court records and bankruptcy documents show.

“The top dollar comes to the guy that owns the pigs, not us that raise the pigs,” Seabaugh said. “We are at the mercy of them. You have to go along with whatever they say. You have no voice in it. It is getting worse.”

And when aging hog barns become obsolete, the big pork companies can take their pigs and dollars elsewhere while contract growers pay to decommission giant waste lagoons and tanks.

An animated tour of a hog confinement. (Jemal R. Brinson / Chicago Tribune)

Southeast Illinois farmer Richard Sutton closed his hog confinement in 2014 but said he is still struggling two years later to empty its million-gallon manure lagoon. “The expenses of closing these things down are just tremendous,” Sutton said.

Seabaugh allowed a reporter and photographer to spend hours in his grim labyrinth of confinement sheds in Montgomery County in southern Illinois, observing the toll the factorylike system takes on facility operators who raise pigs they don’t own.

He’s faced all the accusations commonly leveled at owners of confinements housing thousands of hogs. Neighbors of another Seabaugh facility in Macoupin County filed a civil lawsuit in 2012, saying the confinement’s sickening air emissions made it impossible to host family gatherings or even to sleep some nights.

Seabaugh told the Tribune: “There was nothing we could do about the smell. When you live in the country, you got to get used to it.”

Shortly after complaining, one family “received the severed head of a sow in their front yard,” the pending lawsuit states. That allegation made Seabaugh snort with laughter. “A coyote probably drug it there,” he said.

The Illinois attorney general also has a pending suit against Seabaugh, saying waste had oozed from earthen lagoons and from a basement pit under the Macoupin County barns, turning tributaries of nearby Taylor Creek “a reddish-orange color.”

Seabaugh said he had leaks but inspections showed the manure never reached the creek, and he is still contesting the case, filed in 2011. He has since shuttered that site.

As Seabaugh straddled a gate and entered the first pen, dozens of piglets clattered away, circling like schools of fish. Stepping gingerly across the slotted concrete floors, he grabbed a bruised-looking piglet by its hind leg and gently squeezed the squealing animal head-down between his knees.

He jabbed its squirming back with an injection of antibiotic — “it is a little booster shot for the pigs that are falling behind” — then squirted the pig with a splotch of blue spray paint to mark it as medicated.

Unclenching his knees, Seabaugh gently let the piglet’s front legs slip to the floor and watched the animal teeter and then disappear into the drove.

“There’s no need to be cruel,” he said.

Pioneering farmers

Growing up on a family farm in the 1930s, Harold Steele raised pigs on open fields, plowing their manure into the ground to fertilize crops after they moved the swine herds to new pastures.

In the decades after World War II, Steele and other farmers began building wooden barns and then galvanized-metal sheds to protect their animals from wild predators, cold snaps and summer heat. Through trial, error and inspiration, they devised and shared new housing layouts, ventilation systems and breeding techniques.

“Didn’t have money to hire people. … You did it yourself,” recalled Steele as he sat in the dining room of his family’s farmstead outside Princeton, Ill. “Not all at once. Piecemeal.”

To separate the hogs from their waste, fellow farmer Russ Jeckel devised a slatted floor that allowed manure to drop into below-ground storage pits. But the oaken slats twisted and warped as the wood swelled with moisture, and some piglets injured their legs or even died after their feet got trapped, Steele said.

The pioneers began pouring concrete floors, but only some pigs had tough enough hooves to withstand the hard surfaces, so they began experimenting with hardier genetic lines.

When Steele made the switch to concrete floors, Jeckel gave him some advice: “Make sure you buy a jackhammer because it’s going to be wrong and you’re going to have to modify it right away,” Steele recalled.

“When you do something for confinement, it creates problems that you did not think about,” he said.

As their facilities expanded to hold thousands of pigs, they built earthen lagoons to stockpile the manure, then applied that natural fertilizer to nearby fields. The corn and grain fed their livestock, creating a “virtuous cycle” of reused waste — the very definition of sustainable agriculture.

Jeckel and others honed automated feed mixers and “secret” additives like cinnamon and honey. But by the 1990s, natural feed additives were replaced by constant low doses of government-approved growth hormones, antibiotics and other ingredients that made animals leaner and faster-growing — and sometimes more aggressive.

“The animals changed from what we had created to a kind of animal that was being fed things that they shouldn’t have been fed. They are no longer animals that we’ve known. They are animals that we can’t even handle,” Steele said.

Pigs walk around in their confinement shed at Seabaugh Pork Farms in Montgomery County, Ill. Owner Jeff Seabaugh says he still owes more than $1 million to the banks that financed the facility and that when he tried selling last year, the best offer was $600,000. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Still, the system was working for them until the mid-1990s brought punishing downswings in the market for live hogs — including a devastating 1998 price collapse. Big producers like Smithfield Foods and Cargill swooped in, Steele recalled, and enticed farmers to become “contract growers” instead of raising their own pigs.

It was a way for many to insulate themselves from market risk and remain on their land rather than shutting down altogether.

“For our generation, we all wanted to come back to the farm, and this has enabled us to do so,” said Genny Six, a contract grower whose Morgan County operation in central Illinois has steadily expanded to 7,200 pigs.

Then came the most recent seismic shift: China’s largest meat processor purchased Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion while a Brazilian firm paid $1.45 billion last year to acquire Cargill’s U.S.-based pork business.

“It used to be, the farmer raised the corn that fed his pigs here in Illinois, they got harvested by a packing plant here in Illinois and they probably got consumed here in Illinois,” said western Illinois hog farmer Greg Giertz. “Now the hogs might be owned by someone in Iowa, raised in Illinois, slaughtered in Indiana and shipped to China.”

Illinois’ growing pork industry

As a contract grower starting in the mid-1990s, Giertz erected a series of confinements that produced 65,000 pigs per year and spread millions of gallons of manure onto adjoining fields as fertilizer.

Like Seabaugh, he was accused of repeated water pollution infractions, and a lawsuit from the state attorney general alleged foul odors had invaded the homes of nearby farm families. Today, Giertz said, he is pulling out of the business.

Steele’s account, as well as Illinois State Museum tapes of Jeckel and a third pioneer, George Bauer, show how Illinois played a key role in developing the technologies that now allow the U.S. to produce $21 billion of pork annually and export $6 billion worth per year to China, Mexico and other countries.

But today Steele is pessimistic about the future of independent hog farmers in Illinois. “To be a farmer, you’re responsible for labor, capital and management. Those three steps are essential,” he said. “All you’ve got left is labor.”

By the time his family quit the business, his son Greg Steele added, “we were a hog house janitor and you know how much they pay janitors? Not much.”

A ‘contract grower’

At the Illinois Pork Expo in Springfield in February, large producers including TriOak Foods and Cargill were soliciting contract growers to set up shop near their giant feed mills in southern and western Illinois.

With a contract in hand from a major producer, a young farmer can get bank loans to buy a few acres and build a new confinement, allowing him or her to stay in rural areas that are losing young adults and jobs.

“Opportunities for industry growth continue to sizzle in Illinois as the availability of abundant and affordable feed, and access to markets make the Land of Lincoln an attractive location to raise swine,” said one industry trade publication from the Farm Bureau.

Seabaugh said he built his first barns on a 47-acre plot of Montgomery County land he bought in the 1990s, then slowly added sites in Bond, Fayette, Macoupin and Clinton counties. His goal was to scale up until he was raising 50,000 pigs for slaughter each year.

He turned to contract growing as a way to insulate his business from risks that threatened its survival, such as swine virus epidemics and the unpredictable swings in the market price for live pigs or the corn and soybeans they eat.

Today, Seabaugh said, hog suppliers pay him a predictable $35 per pig space each year to raise their animals. Unloaded when they are about 3 weeks old, the pigs are trucked to market some five months later when they’ve reached 250 to 300 pounds.

The hogs go to the Smithfield Foods packing house in Monmouth, Ill., where they are rendered into fresh cuts, bacon, sausage, ham and hot dogs sold in major supermarket chains, Seabaugh said. Smithfield said the company has a policy of not disclosing its suppliers or where products are shipped from its 40 U.S. processing plants.

While some farmers sign written contracts with suppliers, Seabaugh is one of many growers whose deals are sealed with only a handshake or phone call. And he said his annual pig-space fee has hardly changed in years.

“What really bothers me about it, I used to contract for a guy years ago and got $34 per pig space,” Seabaugh said. “You know how inflation works. My costs are up three times.”

While farmers with new barns and other advantages can earn an additional $8 or more per pig space, Seabaugh’s fee “sounds fairly typical. What you are describing is a very common arrangement,” said Ronald Plain, a recently retired agricultural economics professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “You want to make a lot of money in pigs, you got to own the pigs and deal with a lot of risk.”

Seabaugh’s costs range from interest on the multimillion-dollar bank loans he used to acquire his facilities to utilities and repairs, such as the replacement of concrete floors that dissolve amid the ceaseless barrage of manure.

He also pays one helper minimum wage when he can find someone to take the job. “Working in a hog building is not a premier item. You get some pretty rough guys,” Seabaugh said.

Jeff Seabaugh gives a struggling piglet a “booster shot” of antibiotic at his Montgomery County, Ill., growing operation. Seabaugh raises the animals from when they are about 3 weeks old until they are trucked to market about five months later when they’re 250 to 300 pounds. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

After all the expenses, some years have earned him $60,000, according to court documents. But today, Seabaugh said, “I’m probably making only $20,000 a year, if that.”

And the pigs don’t take days off, so neither can he.

“You’re stuck for seven days a week. I been doing it for years, but there is no money in it anymore,” Seabaugh said. “I don’t know what else I got at this point in time. After I pay all the bills and what have you, I’m just scraping by.”

Seabaugh said he still owes more than $1 million to the banks that financed his Montgomery County facility. He tried selling the shed last year. “The best offer was $600,000. I can’t even get rid of the place, so I told my sons we are stuck.”

His two oldest sons help run the facilities, Seabaugh said. “My two younger ones, they don’t have any desire to be in it, and I am glad they don’t. It’s just no fun,” he said. “If I could sell it tomorrow, I would.”

‘Kill day’

The long barns that house Seabaugh’s pigs in Montgomery County are power-washed after every herd is moved to market, but still the walls are caked with dried waste and blood. Only the constant scurrying of pigs clears the slotted floors as they kick manure into the basement pits below.

Seabaugh bent to get a close look and estimated that 5 feet of hog slime filled the 8-foot-deep pits.

“We handle 7 million gallons of manure. We empty in the fall. … We can only do it when the crops are gone,” Seabaugh said.

As he threaded his way through the disorienting maze of unlit wooden hallways that connect the barns, Seabaugh tinkered with the automated feeding and ventilation machines that keep the animals alive.

“I can do basics. Just learned it by hand,” he said.

Bred for their leanness, modern confinement pigs can be jumpy; Seabaugh’s animals constantly tried to leap the plastic divider walls of their pens or somehow slipped into the “alleys” that he and his worker patrol.

He deftly corralled the runaways into corners and hoisted them by their back legs into the pens.

On this day he spent hours vaccinating animals, using the same needle again and again. “You got to watch your hands. I’ve stuck myself a lot,” he said.

Harold Steele, left, and his son Greg raised pigs for decades and take pride in the Illinois pork industry, but they lament the rise of big corporations at the expense of the independent farmer. (Gary Marx / Chicago Tribune)

Sometimes he loses herds to antibiotic-resistant viruses that sweep through the thousands of animals clustered together. During the previous two weeks, Seabaugh said, more than 100 piglets died of a virus.

“They broke three days after they got here. They all go at once,” he said.

But as a contract grower, he can hardly choose the animals he accepts. “I just get whatever they bring.”

Tacked to a wall was a daily log where Seabaugh makes sharp pencil strokes to tally the pigs he’s lost. There were 92 one recent week, then 52, then 75. In this week he forecast losing 60 animals.

One of his pens is a “sick bay” where the piglets get a fortified feed. Several small carcasses lay on the floor, and at one point a swarm of piglets attacked a runt that buckled and began to bleat. They bit until it went still, then circled away.

Hog confinement operator Jeff Seabaugh removes a dead pig from one of his sheds in Montgomery County, Ill. Premature deaths are common; Seabaugh lost 92 animals one recent week. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

If underweight piglets are still staggering around the sick bay after a few days, Seabaugh euthanizes them with a quick blow to the head — a method approved by veterinarians. It’s a task he has done so often that he says it no longer troubles him.

“Tomorrow is kill day,” Seabaugh said quietly. “No need to have ’em hanging around. Not doing them any good or me.”