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N.D. hog farmer numbers hit record lows

(Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003 – CropChoice news) -- BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- The number of hog farms in North Dakota is at a record low, but some producers say there is reason to hope for a turnaround.

Dave Fredrickson, manager of Prairie Pork LLP in Crosby, says his company's production contracts extend into April, and prices have shown a steady increase.

``I'm real optimistic,'' Fredrickson said.

It will take more than optimism for some independent producers to stay in business, said Charlotte Meier, state executive of the North Dakota Pork Producers. The state has lost about 400 producers since hog prices reached Depression-era depths in 1999 and 2000, she said. About 100 farmers left the business last year.

``The biggest problem is having market access,'' Meier said. ``We need more independent packing plants that can help out the small independent producer.''

Doug Zacher, 31, who farms near Elgin, said he keeps between 200 and 300 hogs on hand, mainly to supplement his income. Most of his money is made on beef cattle and wheat, he said. ``What it comes down to is that I like raising hogs,'' Zacher said.

Zacher sells a lot of his pigs to friends, neighbors and visitors -- mostly hunters, who have become regular customers. He also gets the animals butchered locally, which saves him trucking costs.

He does some advertising, but most of his sales are through word of mouth, he said.

Zacher said even though prices have been ``pretty rough'' for a long time, he is hopeful for a rebound. ``I'll probably still keep (raising hogs) no matter what happens,'' he said.

Meier said most farmers who have given up on hogs had small operations, mostly in the range of about 10 sows. The remaining producers, about 600 in all, are holding their own, she said.

``I understand they are doing as best as they can be,'' Meier said. ``At the current time, they know they are still able to stay in business, so they are riding the low prices.''

Jim and Jody Hauge, who farm near Carson, gave up on their hog operation a couple of years ago, mainly because they had trouble finding workers and because their cattle operation took most of their time.

``That's not to say that times aren't tough because they are,'' Jody Hauge said.

There are about 58.9 million hogs and pigs nationwide, a drop of about 1 percent in the past year, according to the Agriculture Department.

Meier said the reduction in hog herds could boost prices. Some analysts believe the drop-off likely will increase the cost of pork in grocery stores, and producers should see profits by May or June.

The number of hogs and pigs in North Dakota on Dec. 1, 2002, totaled 154,000, unchanged from the previous year's record low, according to the state Agricultural Statistics Service. Meier said that could be a good sign.

``At least we may have stabilized a little bit,'' she said. ``Perhaps we aren't going to lose any more producers than we already have.''