With all due respect to his grandfather's "just work hard and all will be fine" advice, Randy Curless knows life on an Indiana hog farm is no longer that simple.

Reality hit home about 18 months ago when Curless -- faced with $400,000 in losses during a two-year slump in the pork industry -- had to tell two of his eight full-time employees they no longer had jobs.

"These were primary breadwinners in their families," he said, still agonizing over the decision. "But we were losing so much money."

As Hoosiers celebrate the "Year of Pigs" at the Indiana State Fair, Indiana's pork producers are still trying to climb out of a huge financial pit caused by a mix of factors: the "swine flu" panic that drove down the price of hogs; an "ethanol frenzy" that drove up the price of much-needed corn; and the nation's slumping economy.

From 2007 to 2009, Indiana pork producers lost an estimated $200 million, according to Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt. Some pork producers were driven to downsize or file bankruptcy. Many simply sold off everything and quit the business.

Those who stayed, like Curless, have been modifying their business practices to stay ahead of the game. And they are starting to enjoy some good news: Pork prices are on the rebound, the cost of corn has stabilized, H1N1 is out of the news and the economy is starting to rebound.

Still, the industry faces challenges: U.S. pork exports to countries such as China and Russia are down, and potential new customers in South Korea, Colombia and Panama are on hold until crucial trade agreements can be finalized.

More than 8 million hogs go to market by way of farms in Indiana -- the fifth-biggest producer in the nation -- according to the Indiana Pork Producers. While most hog farms are still small (fewer than 100 hogs), most of the hogs are produced on large, farms that are often run by families that have expanded their operations.

Statewide, the number of Indiana hog farms has dropped dramatically, from 25,000 in 1979 to about 3,200 today, mostly due to consolidations and the loss of farmland to other developments.

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Source: Indianapolis Star