RAYMOND, Ill. (KMOV.com) -- Phil Borgic started raising pigs with his father Erval more than 50 years ago.
"I was the oldest son," Borgic said. "It was understood."
When he walked the farm with his father, life was much different in pig land. The hogs were kept outside, in mud, in heat, with no ventilation. Today, Borgic's third generation farm near Raymond, Illinois has some 17,000 pigs being treated as well as humanely possible without getting a seat at the family dinner table.
But life is not good right now for either Borgic or his pigs. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, farmers are being forced to euthanize their pigs; with the number expected to reach 10 million by the fall.
"It's a sad reality," said Borgic. "Just terrible."
That reality comes after meat processing plants around the country have had to close or shut down temporarily due to the virus. With the plants not operating at full capacity, farmers like Borgic have nowhere for their pigs to go.
Without processing plants, pigs don't turn into pork.
And the hogs can't be kept on the family farm. They keep growing and growing. Once they are past 300 pounds, the processing plants typically won't accept them. And with pig gestation just over three months, baby piglets are arriving daily right behind them. There literally is no room at the inn.
Farmers are left with an agonizing decision. Watching their older animals suffer, or euthanizing them.
For Borgic, this is not his first rodeo with his pigs.
In 2014, there was another virus. It may not have been COVID-19, but the Porcine Epidemic Disease, also known as PEDv, hit pig farmers throughout the country hard. Mature hogs became ill. Baby piglets died within days. Farmers lost around 8 million of their pigs.
"It wiped out all of our baby pigs within a month," said Borgic, who lost around 10 percent of his piglets. "But PEDv was different. That became controllable. You could see the end game there. We don't know what the end game is with COVID."
Borgic's family farm survived the virus. But they weren't quite as fortunate in 2018 when they woke up to find 10 of their buildings ablaze, including six buildings that housed pigs. Fifteen different fire departments from throughout Montgomery County rushed to the scene. Ninety firefighters battled the fire for 16 hours. Thirty semi-trucks arrived. And they weren't alone. More than 200 townsfolk rushed to the scene to help.
Raymond only has 1,000 residents.
The focus was on saving the pigs. I asked Borgic how many pigs he lost that day. There was a long pause. "Too many." Then another pause. "Way too many."
But 3,000 were saved. And through the darkness of heartbreak came the sunshine of hope. 48 hours after the fire wiped out most of his family farm, Borgic posted this message on the farms web page:
"We are proud to report, a day after this unfortunate event, we had baby pigs born on the farm. We continue to give our pigs the best care. Life keeps moving forward and our farm will be here."
It takes roughly 11 months from a piglet's birth until pork arrives for the consumer. Right now, those 11 months are a question mark for the farmers, the pigs, and the consumers.
"We need to move 8,000 pigs a week to the market," Borgic said. "If that's not happening, we have to make some difficult decisions."
Among those decisions is stalling the growth of his pigs before they reach that 300-pound mark.
"We're trying," said Borgic. "We've gone to no-growth rations. We've slowed down everything. We've cut their growth by 60, 70 percent. But then we are full of pigs, with nowhere to go. We just can't keep doing it."
To get ahead of the curve, many farmers are now being forced to do the unthinkable: aborting expected piglets.
"Heartbreaking," Borgic said.
And farmers who are forced to euthanize their pigs are immediately faced with another problem: what to do with the carcasses. Many are being dumped in landfills.
"Fortunately, Illinois has just issued some new guidelines," said Borgic. "They are allowing us to have above-ground burials. We can put dirt on the carcasses and they will decompose and turn into fertilizer."
Still the best of bad options. And it gets worse. The rising pig population is expected to cost American farmers more than $5 million.
"Our losses are going to be huge," said Borgic, who before COVID-19 was producing around 225,000 hogs a year.
So what now?
Borgic has reached out everywhere trying to sell his pigs before he has to euthanize them. He has made private sales to Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts and North Carolina. He's willing to lose money to try to save a pig.
"I sell them for $20," Borgic said. It costs him $140 to raise the pig.
But he can't save them all. Borgic said he has had to euthanize about 500 pigs.
"We do everything we can to avoid it."
Erval Borgic was no ordinary farmer when his son walked alongside him 50 years ago. The elder Borgic rose to the position of President of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. Years later, his son did the same.
Today, Phil Borgic farms on more than 200 acres, growing corn, soybeans and wheat next to his family of pigs. Mud, heat, and lack of ventilation have been replaced by state-of-the-art farming equipment that monitors the security of the pigs, controls the climate, and adjusts feeding needs.
And that fire on the Borgic family farm in 2018? The farm employed 25 people. With their facility all but destroyed, uncertainty hovered over the farm. But not for Phil Borgic. The day after the fire, he gathered his employees. He told them he understood if they decided not to stay. But if they did, they all had jobs.
There is a shirt employees often wear around the farm. It says "You're allowed to scream, you're allowed to cry. But you're never allowed to give up."
"You can't" said Borgic. "I didn't give up after the first virus or the fire. And we can't give up now. We just need to pray for that vaccine."