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nhf-francoisfamily.jpg Courtesy of Randy Francois

Holding back hogs, recovering from COVID-19

Iowa pork producer details his marketing challenges, family's bout with coronavirus during pandemic.

Randy Francois recognizes he's been pretty fortunate throughout the pandemic — first getting his market hogs through 10 weeks of supply chain disruptions without a single depopulation, and second he and his family recovering from a COVID-19 case that came out of nowhere.

"We were very fortunate. I don't know what I would have done if I was the only one that could chore the barns," says Randy, who farms near Winthrop, Iowa, with his parents John and Liz Francois and another business partner, Ryan Kress. "I mean, it definitely would have added a lot more strain on the operation. We didn't have a lot of pigs to sell at that time, just for that week anyway. It really worked out pretty well from that standpoint and everybody just kind of chipped in."

Hillside Partners had their first set back in April when the Tyson Foods Waterloo, Iowa, plant temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19 employee infections. The wean-to-finish operation, with shares in two Carthage Veterinary Services sow sites and one Suidae Health and Production sow unit, quickly reformulated diets at their on-site feed mill.

"Within the first two weeks we switched everything to hold diets, so we were heavy-use corn with just a little salt for our maintenance diet. That was a little nerve-wracking," Randy says. "In those first few weeks, we had a lot of big pigs going out and I think our heaviest group got up to like 320, 325, somewhere in there, but then quickly fell back closer to that 300 mark. The maintenance diets really just kind of held up there and we had some pigs that were on those for probably six to eight weeks longer than they'd probably gone."

In addition to working closely with their feed distributors and veterinarians, Randy says the Tyson Waterloo plant kept in close contact with the operation during that time.

"Our buyer would contact us and give us an update on the plant, how many people showed up for work and kind of what we could expect, and that was good," Randy says. "Communication was key throughout it."

The Hillside Partners' team also routinely sorted out the heaviest pigs, keeping those market-ready hogs in one building on each site and ready for a load-out.

"It took a lot of extra time and management from our standpoint, from our operation, to move pigs around and to do a really good job of sorting and making sure we were getting the biggest pigs out of every group and maintaining everybody's weight the best we could," Randy says.

He estimates their operation was on-call for loads for about 10 weeks, but says the process went smoothly. He credits the farm's close proximity to the plant, being only 40 miles from Waterloo, as well as having their own truck and trailer for transporting in a moment's notice.

"Sometimes it would be hours. We'd be loading in a group of pigs and he [the Tyson buyer] would call us and say, 'we'll take another load if you can get up here in the next hour' and it was, 'Yep. We'll do whatever we can do,'" Randy says. "Because we didn't know when our next load was going to be. We were Saturdays; whatever day, we were ready. I mean the truck was pointed toward Waterloo at all times."

Hillside Partners is getting about a one-week notice for loads now and Randy expects that to go back to the normal two- to three-weeks scheduling in the next month.

Case of COVID-19
It was June 18, a Thursday evening, when the 30-year-old pork producer started not feeling well.

"He was not feeling the best, kind of run down, but it was hot outside," says Megan Francois, Randy's wife. "He felt kind of dehydrated, but checked his temp and he had like right around 100, fever wise, but he had been outside all day. We didn't really think too much of it, but at that point, we were kind of concerned. We have two little kids, a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old baby, and so at that point, we were like, 'OK, let's just put you down in the basement.'"

By Friday morning, Randy's fever had reached 102.5 and he was experiencing body aches and chills. That's when the young family decided to call the doctor, who urged Randy to come in for a COVID-19 test.

"Basically, I had a headache, fever, just fatigue more than anything. Whenever I got up and moved around, I just kind of felt zoned out and out of it. I guess I was tired more than anything, but you know, I'm not used to laying around either," Randy says.

The young father was able to get outside for a little while over the weekend and walk around. He spent his Father's Day 20 feet away from his children.

It was around 9 p.m. that evening when they got the call that Randy was positive. The family immediately notified the other business partners as well as the farm's two hired men. His parents quarantined from the rest of the farm and one co-worker chose to do the same, to protect his own family.

Megan, who works off farm and, in an office, expected if anyone in the family was going to get COVID-19, it would be her first. On Monday, she says that's when she noticed allergy-like symptoms, a stuffy nose, a slight headache and a sore throat. She decided to get herself, as well as the children, tested.

The results came back Wednesday, declaring Megan and the baby positive for COVID-19, but the 2-year-old negative.

"That was really interesting to us because he is constantly in my face, drinking out of the same cup as me, you know, always with the baby and in her face and everything," Megan says.

She never developed any other symptoms and the baby remained asymptomatic. By the weekend, the family says they were pretty much back to normal but remained quarantined for the prescribed "mandatory 10 days from the onset of symptoms."

As far as the farm operations, Randy says he didn't help much for the first four days of his illness.

"On Monday morning I went out, we live by a 2,400-head hog site, so I chored that site on Monday myself," Randy says. "I put a mask on, and I just did my normal chore routine and by the time, I got done with that on Monday, I was pretty tired. I definitely was happy I was not going to work fully."

The next day he completed chores at that site again, but decided to venture out more, driving around to check the crops.

"I was only gone about two hours on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday as well," Randy says. "After I got done with that, I was pretty tired. I went home, I took a nap. It wore me out, I'm not going to lie."

Once he was cleared as recovered, Randy says he asked for release paperwork in case anyone questioned him about being out of quarantine. Over the last three-and-a-half months, Buchanan County had only around 40 cases. During their 10-day quarantine, Megan says they were three out of the 11 cases that popped up during that time.

To this day, Randy still has no idea how he contracted the virus. No one else working on the farm or anyone in their families came down with any symptoms.

Looking back, he says the first five days were the worst.

"Every day, I was like I'm feeling better today, but what is tomorrow going to be like? Are my symptoms going to turn and get worse?" Randy says. "It was a trying time, but it was just the unknown and the fear."

Megan says not having anyone to turn to who had experienced COVID-19 was also difficult for the family.

"When we found out our baby had it, at the time she didn't have any symptoms, but it was a constant," Megan says. "I would check on her multiple times at night because I was so worried about what's going to happen to her and so not knowing anybody that had it to talk to them about it and their experience was tough for us."

Since then she has fielded several calls from parents asking about daycare procedures, testing and how long to quarantine children.

The couple recognizes they were lucky to have such mild cases of COVID-19, but know for many there are still so many unknowns with symptoms, testing, recovery, quarantine times, etc.

"We are very fortunate that nobody had a respiratory issue or breathing or anything like that. It was very mild," Randy says. "In regard to what you're hearing now, I don't know if we're lucky or if that's more, what somebody of our age would develop, it's hard to say."

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