(AP) — On a recent camping trip with his son's Cub Scout troop, Curtis Barwick ended a talk about his job managing contracts for the now-bankrupt Coharie Hog Farms with a desperate plea. "I really don't care if you eat the sausage or not," Barwick told the scouts. "Just buy it."

North Carolina's swine industry needs all the customers it can get to bring it back. After two years of losses, Clinton-based Coharie and three smaller North Carolina pork producers recently declared bankruptcy, causing scores of grain and more pork producers to lose once-stable contracts to raise hogs.

Many producers fear that other companies could go under or greatly reduce their contracts, further damaging the hog-dependent Eastern North Carolina economy. The average cost of raising a hog is now $20 more than the hog is worth, thanks to high grain prices and weak demand, said Don Butler, president of the National Pork Producers Council.

"Everybody's bleeding out of this," said Jay Sullivan, a fourth-generation farmer with a 900-acre Sampson County farm raising hogs and growing grain. "We're going to need a little help."Sullivan raised 3,000 hogs a year for Coharie, but will have empty barns in January unless he can find another hog company to replace what was 35 percent of his income.

North Carolina has the second-largest hog industry in the country. The $2.2 billion in 2008 cash receipts was 22 percent of all cash receipts from farming in the state, according to the state's Agriculture Department. The industry's problems are complex, with blame attributed to the net effect of high grain prices, less consumer demand for pork and the emergence this April of 2009 Novel H1N1 influenza.

Coharie was the latest and biggest casualty. The independent producer, run by the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth and once the 22nd-largest in the country, had 170 employees and contracted with more than 100 local farms in the Sampson County area. Other companies that went under this year include Bunting Swine of Edgecombe County and Coastal Plains Pork and Perfect Pig, both based in Sampson County.

North Carolina is home to 10 million swine, nearly one hog for every man, woman and child in the state. That ratio jumps up considerably in the eastern part of the state, where the hog industry is concentrated and is an integral part of the economy.

While industry leaders scramble to find help from federal and state governments, hundreds of producers are bracing for several more months of what's been called the hardest times the industry has ever seen. The situation won't get better until next June, when prices should stabilize, said Kelly Zering, a North Carolina State University economist specializing in the pork industry.

Deborah Johnson, the head of the N.C. Pork Council, said she is seeking help, even inquiring whether the situation could quality for federal disaster money. It doesn't, but the federal government agreed recently to buy $50 million worth of pork for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs.

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Harnett County Democrat, wants to see that expanded, with the governmental buying excess pork to feed people at food shelters or rolling out a pork-specific food stamp.

Barwick, a Coharie environmental land manager who works with contract swine growers to monitor waste lagoons, compared Coharie's bankruptcy to having a death in the family for the Sampson County community where he works and lives. He'll be out of a job as well, and worries what will happen in Sampson County, where local schools, farm equipment businesses, restaurants and churches depend on money earned from hogs.

Times are bad now, but the outlook for pork isn't, Zering said. As the economies in developing nations grow, the worldwide appetite for meat, including pork, is supposed to be going up. That puts the hog industry in a good spot, Zering said. That's not much solace for those struggling now.

Source: Associated Press