Bryan Barbour’s phone buzzed at 6 in the morning on June 21, 2013. Marty Lassiter was calling from the Quinn Sow Farm, a collection of eight barns off Friendship Church Road near the town of Faison.
The piglets were in trouble. Barbour jumped in his truck and drove to the farm.
He stopped at the barn door.
“It was something I’d never seen,” said Barbour, who has worked on Eastern North Carolina farms for 20 years.
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The baby pigs were vomiting. They were overcome with diarrhea. Many were dead.
“A smell like you’ve never smelled,” Barbour said.
Just days before, Lassiter and Barbour had heard about a virus that was hurting swine farms in other states. Now they were looking at North Carolina’s first case of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PED, a foreign invader believed to have started in China.
It was spreading to piglets from barn to barn at the Quinn complex “like a wildfire from spot to spot,” Lassiter said. One farmhand broke down in tears.
By the end of the day, about 900 piglets once destined for Japan had died. During the next month, the farm lost more than 5,000.
Over the next year, the virus would kill millions of piglets across the country, driving up pork prices and scrambling an industry built to churn out loins, ribs, hams and bellies for markets here and across the world.
The latest estimate from the National Pork Board: PED cut the nation’s pork output by about 8 percent this year.
PED’s onset hammered home how fragile the pork supply chain can be. Just as floods and hurricanes wipe out fields of crops, or pests can hurt oranges in Florida, a mysterious disease can appear and hobble one of the state’s biggest industries.
The pain wasn’t only in the losses. The unknown adversary was frightening.
Farmers and veterinarians knew little about PED as it first appeared in the U.S. in Iowa in May 2013. It spread to 30 states within a year.
The virus turned pork producers into detectives. How did it get here? How does it spread? Is there a vaccine?
Within a week of when the virus struck at the Quinn Sow Farm, executives at the major hog companies in North Carolina, the No. 2 state in the nation for pork, gathered in a conference room in Kenansville, about 80 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Bob Ivey, who along with his brother, Ted, runs Maxwell Foods’ operations, dispatched company veterinarian Chad Smith to the meeting. Twenty-five vets and production managers from other major operations in the state were in the room. The mood was tense.
“Everybody was very concerned,” Smith said, “and everybody was very nervous about moving forward. The reality was setting in. It was like a punch in the gut.”
Competitive companies agreed to share as much as they could about who had the virus, and as quickly as possible.
At Maxwell Foods, all attention turned to the new threat. Barbour and Lassiter, and dozens of others like them, were on the front lines.
Smith began constant testing for the virus. He looked to see how it might have arrived and began drawing up a plan.
Bob and Ted Ivey gathered for hours every day in a building known as the Hog Annex. At times, it was standing room only as their team tried to understand what was happening and how they could protect their herds.
“It’s a constant, moving battle,” Ted Ivey said one morning. “If you’re fighting a war and you don’t know where the enemy is and it’s shooting at you, you are kind of at a big disadvantage. You have to know where the enemy is.”
A grim task
If there was anything good about PED, it was this: It doesn’t affect humans or meat safety.
But it kills baby pigs, especially ones whose mothers haven’t been infected with the virus before. When adult hogs get it, they get diarrhea for a few days. In piglets, the virus’ severe symptoms lead to dehydration and certain death. They’re too young to handle it.
When the virus shows up on a farm, the response it requires is heartbreaking.
Workers must infect the rest of a herd as quickly as possible. The idea is to build up immunity – mothers with the virus will pass protection through their milk to litters that follow.
But the farm must sacrifice all its piglets in the process, with many euthanized to prevent suffering.
The most common way the farmers infect the herd is to grind up intestines of euthanized pigs and feed the virus to the herd. They call it the “feed back.”
“It’s a helpless feeling, knowing the best option is to lose them,” Lassiter said.
Widespread deaths sapped morale, Barbour said.
“We take pride in sending a good, healthy pig out the door,” he said. “Then when you see this ... disease come in and wipe all that out in one day, it’s depressing. Nobody in this company wants to see a pig suffer.”
Then the worst of winter hit.
‘Then it was hell’
As 2014 began, the people who raise pigs on the roughly 175 farms that make up the Maxwell Foods network felt good about their response to PED.
The virus had hit at Quinn in June, and a couple of other farms by December. It was devastating where it struck, usually killing about four to six weeks’ worth of piglets – thousands at each farm. But overall, it could have been worse.
Then cold, snow and ice blew in and, with it, more PED. Like flu in humans, the virus seems to spread in cold weather.
“The farms started popping like firecrackers,” said Barbour, who manages several farms for Maxwell.
From late January to early March this year, more than a dozen of the sow farms in the Maxwell network were hit with PED. Ultimately, roughly two-thirds of about 30 farms were infected. Other hog companies were hit as hard, or harder.
When the Maxwell farm managers and workers gathered in a cavernous conference room outside Goldsboro on March 19, the hurt was apparent.
As the losses flashed on a projector screen, many of the men wouldn’t look up. The company was in the midst of losing 100,000 more piglets.
“I used to enjoy my job – then it was hell,” Barbour said. “I was cutting guts, grinding guts, feeding it back. February was the worst month of my employment out of 20 years I’ve been here.”
Diagnosing the spread
One day in March, with PED spreading, Bob Ivey climbed into the company’s grain elevators to watch tractor-trailers filling with feed for the farms.
He had a theory: The virus was getting on the trucks and possibly spreading through deliveries of food. He paced back and forth on a catwalk, suspended above the rigs as grain flowed down chutes into the trailers, sending a hazy cloud into the air. Follow-up tests would confirm PED on some feed truck “booms,” the arm that drops the feed into a bin at each farm.
They had been delivering the virus to their pigs. The Maxwell team quickly redesigned the booms.
Around that time, they also conducted an on-the-fly science experiment to see how easily the virus might spread. They loaded a tractor-trailer full of pigs that were positive with the virus and drove it out onto a country road. They took a second trailer – cleaned and swabbed to prove it did not have the virus. They sent the trucks wheeling past each other.
The virus spread to the clean truck.
They reworked their trucking routes, but the experiment underscored how easily the virus moved. Some research suggests even the wind carries the virus.
The company added thorough car-wash stations at farms. It implored workers to follow strict rules on cleanliness. It added special foam baths to clean 18-wheelers.
One afternoon, amid the cleaning frenzy, Ivey looked at a trailer drying in the sun. It had been full of 270-pound hogs, a messy load, hours before. “I believe we could eat lunch off of that right now,” he said.
Ivey and his brother, Ted, studied and questioned everything in the system, from trash collection to pest control to how pigs are moved around as they grow up. Hogs generally take three trips as they grow up, moving from a sow farm to a nursery, then to a “finishing” floor and to slaughter.
“You know what we found out?” Ted Ivey said. “The enemy was everywhere. PED was everywhere.”
The pork industry spent millions last year to research the virus, and the federal government started offering aid to farmers hit by the virus. Several companies launched work on vaccines. And the Iveys have begun revamping their entire system to limit how hogs move around. It’s a two-year undertaking.
No one knows what this winter will be like, particularly as herds of sows turn over and farms fill up with hogs that have never had the virus. They will wait. It’s like sending a child to day care for the first time.
Industry officials, researchers and regulators speak often of the uncertainty. But most also expect a year’s effort against the virus to show results. The worst of it is expected here next month and in February. By April, they’ll know how they did.
Driving prices up
More than anyone else at Maxwell Foods, Bob Ivey is responsible for getting Silky Pork to restaurants and grocers in Japan. The stakes are higher for him and those who grow the special pigs for the Japanese because of the direct connection to customers. Most pork producers in North Carolina deliver hogs only to slaughterhouses.
In Japan, customers started feeling the impact of PED. Japan is a major destination for the Maxwell Foods pork, which is specially bred and fed to create Silky Pork, a meat with more marbling of fat.
Pork prices shot up in February and March because of PED, as markets anticipated a gap in the supply. In the U.S., the price of pork chops jumped 41 percent in the first three months of this year; shoulders and roasts rose by 50 percent.
In Japan, prices also rose.
Bob Ivey was called to Tokyo for meetings, mostly to explain PED and how it was altering everything in North Carolina’s hog industry. It was April, and the prices were angering grocers and restaurants that had already set their pricing for the quarter and were counting on serving Silky Pork.
“They were upset, I’m telling you,” Ivey said.
Ivey met with more than 20 Silky Pork customers in the span of a few days. Some customers considered alternate sources of pork in Europe, though Ivey recalls “every single one” expressed how much they liked the meat.
“They were just shocked by the price and were trying to figure out what they were going to do,” he said. “At the end of the day, they decided that people wanted the quality, and they stuck with the program.”
Restaurant managers placed stickers on menus to cover the old, lower prices.
Back in North Carolina, the losses were becoming more and more visible. In July, Ivey visited Hog Dairy Farm, one of the company’s biggest, in a sprawling complex of 16 barns at a former dairy.
He steered his truck into the middle of the rows of barns and stepped out. It was quiet – 15 barns were empty. Each barn should have had about $75,000 worth of pigs inside, all eating, drinking and fattening for the market.
In meetings and phone calls all year, Ivey had pushed his farmers to make up for the losses in bodies by adding pounds to the ones they had. It became a common refrain as spring turned to summer then fall.
“Add pounds, guys,” he would say. “We need the weight.”
In early September, when one group of Silky Pork hogs went to the packing plant, the hole in the supply created by the virus was apparent. The plant was processing about 8,400 hogs per day, down from the normal 10,000.
By then, almost all the farms were reporting they no longer had PED. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t come back. It will. They are expecting it.
The Maxwell Foods farmers lost about 4 percent of their total supply to the virus this year, better than the industry as a whole – and had enough to fill Tokyo’s orders.
“When you go to Starbucks, you want a cup of coffee,” Bob Ivey said one day while driving from farm to farm. “You don’t want the lady to stand there and tell you it’s not available today because there was a storm or something happened somewhere on some mountainside. You get the coffee.”
Japan would get its pork.
Tomorrow: A long, cold trip