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[Feature] Pig farmers cry for help from prolonged ASF outbreak

A South Gyeongsang Province official uses a heat sensor camera to measure pigs’ temperatures at a virus testing center last month. Local governments have been using the devices to prevent damage to their pig farming sectors by detecting African swine fever early. (South Gyeongsang provincial government)
A South Gyeongsang Province official uses a heat sensor camera to measure pigs’ temperatures at a virus testing center last month. Local governments have been using the devices to prevent damage to their pig farming sectors by detecting African swine fever early. (South Gyeongsang provincial government)
The novel coronavirus has been grabbing headlines for months, causing numerous deaths, economic setbacks and disrupting everyday business and life activities.

But what has gone fairly unnoticed by the general public is another virus that has uprooted the lives of hundreds of pig farmers and cost the lives of thousands of pigs in Korea. And as the African swine fever outbreak continues, empty-handed pig farmers are waving the white flag.

“My pig farm has been just sitting here empty for months, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” said Sung Kyung-sik, one of 261 pig farm owners who had their pigs culled in accordance with the government’s quarantine measures.

All 1,000 pigs at his farm in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province, were culled eight months ago.

The swine virus, for which no vaccine exists, has a fatality rate of nearly 100 percent for infected animals. It is known to pass by direct contact as well as through infected animal feed and on clothing and farm equipment, although is harmless to humans.

Since the disease landed here in September, South Korea has killed more than 450,000 farmed pigs in the Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces, and some 633 wild boars as of Wednesday.

Infections were reported only at 14 pig farms in the two regions, but authorities pushed to cull all the pigs in nearby areas to eliminate the chance of the virus spreading beyond the two provinces. An African swine fever case at a pigpen was last reported on Oct. 9, 2019.

Authorities, however, have been discovering dead wild boars infected with the disease along the inter-Korean border, counting two more such cases in the first week of June. North Korea reported its first case four months earlier than South Korea.

Pig farmers hope to have pigs back in their barns as soon as possible. But even authorities aren’t sure when that could be because of the wild boars in the border area, for which they cannot do much about.

Summer months are not the right time, the Agriculture Ministry says.

“Readmission could only be brought into discussion when ASF infection is controlled with wild boars while no confirmed cases are found in raised pigs,” Vice Agriculture Minister Lee Jae-ouk said in a press briefing last month. “We cautiously expect that to be the second half of this year.”

Choi Myung-chul, an official at the ministry’s African swine fever task force, explained, “Summer is especially dangerous because corpses of ASF-infected wild boars can contaminate areas and start another major spread of the virus.”
Wild boars are seen in a trap set by the government to prevent the spread of African swine fever. Since last year the Ministry of Environment has been trapping and killing wild boars in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces to contain the disease. (Ministry of Environment)
Wild boars are seen in a trap set by the government to prevent the spread of African swine fever. Since last year the Ministry of Environment has been trapping and killing wild boars in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces to contain the disease. (Ministry of Environment)

Wild boars become more active during summer, and the young ones born in the springtime start roaming around over wider areas. Their movement can contribute to the resurgence of the virus, the official added.

Struggling pig farmers say they are already on the brink of bankruptcy, asking the government for more support to help them survive until they can replenish their headcounts.

What the government has proposed so far has been unrealistic, they say, suggesting that officials actually come visit affected pig farms and listen to their needs in person.

“The one-time payment kind of helped for the first several months, but that’s about it,” said Sung, the owner of a farm in Yeoncheon, referring to compensation -- 348,000 won ($289) per pig culled -- from the government.

Another affected farmer in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, echoed this view.

“We still have to pay for electricity to maintain empty barns, on top of monthly salaries for workers. We can’t just fire them when we don’t know when we will be able to bring pigs back to our farms.”

Debt is a problem haunting many affected farmers. As it takes anywhere between a full year and 16 months for pig farms to start turning a profit after buying their first pigs, many rely on debt, industry insiders said.

According to the Korea Pork Producers Association, pig farms affected by the African swine fever outbreak have an average of 1 billion won in outstanding debt.

The government pushed back interest payments on policy loans extended to pig farms, but nearly 70 percent of what they owe is borrowed from private lenders.

To have their voices heard, a number of pig farmers have spent weeks protesting in front of the National Assembly and presidential office, asking officials to help them keep their heads above water during the African swine fever outbreak.

“I understand that containing the virus is an utmost priority for the government, I get that,” pig farmer Sung said. “But we are no saints at all, and we are in urgent need of more support measures to remain uncrushed from outstanding loans amid uncertainties.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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