LaHarpe teen's video highlights COVID-19 pork supply chain issues

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 31, 2020 12:01 am

LAHARPE, Ill. -- When COVID-19 disrupted the pork supply chain, Abbie Johnson saw more than just the impact to her family's farming operation.

She saw the possibility of helping people understand more about how food moves from farm to fork.

So the 16-year-old from LaHarpe put together a video as a 4-H and FFA project posted on YouTube and shared by the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

"I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to teach the public about how important everything is and how one little effect in the supply chain can affect so many areas," said Abbie, who will be a junior at Illini West High School and is a member of the LaHarpe Four-Leaf Clovers.

"Every part of it is very important from production to transportation to processing plants. We all work together, and we all work at a fast pace to produce the most pork as possible normally."

In the video, Abbie explains that the Johnsons raise pigs in a wean-to-finish operation, taking the animals from 15 to 18 pounds to market weight of 285 pounds in 140 days and sending them off to meat processing plants.

But the processing industry saw major changes in product demand when COVID-19 shut down restaurants and other food-service providers the first disruption in the supply chain, Abbie said. Then plants shut down amid the spread of the virus before reopening at a lower capacity to deal with a growing backlog of pigs a second disruption.

Unable to send pigs to the packing plant, the Johnsons had to slow down feed rations, and growth, to hold onto the animals as much as seven weeks longer than usual.

"Another problem that the pork supply chain had was the farrowing farm had pigs already born and they needed to be moved to a finishing farm, but those farms were full with pigs that needed to be sent out," Abbie said.

The bigger picture featured in Abbie's video helps explain another impact of the coronavirus.

"It's not just the packing plant. It's not necessarily that we didn't have enough animals. It was a disturbance in the supply chain that didn't allow animals to be produced into products we like to eat like bacon and pork chops," she said.

Abbie used video from the family farm and other sources, and talked with her dad Andy Johnson and Dr. Joe Connor, in putting together the project named a state fair alternate in this year's virtual Hancock County 4-H Fair. Another of her videos, focused on beef production, was a grand champion winner at last year's Illinois State Fair.

It's good training for Abbie, who's looking at a possible career in ag communications. "My ultimate goal is to educate people who might not know about agriculture," she said.

Helping consumers gain awareness of the farm-to-fork process allows the pork industry to connect with buyers on a deeper level, said Jenny Jackson, IPPA's director of communications.

"Advocates such as Abbie Johnson, have taken this opportunity to share the farm-to-fork journey with family and friends. By watching videos like hers, and seeing our social media presence, we are finding that consumers have a greater appreciation for farmers knowing the complicated process it takes to get food on grocery store shelves."