By JOHN O'CONNELL
Doyle Schuester has five hogs at his Payette, Idaho, farm and ranch.
Though he's raised hogs for years, he's noticed an increase in the number of small pork producers like himself.
The USDA recently estimated the combined hog inventory of Idaho and Washington state at 65,000 head through Dec. 1, up 12 percent from the previous year.
"I think it's increasing. I've gone to the sales and talked to people, and some of my friends are talking about getting into it, in just a small way, 5 to 10 hogs," Schuester said, adding they're concerned about a general trend of rising meat prices. "I think there's going to be a lot more for personal use."
USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated the number of market hogs -- those bound for slaughter -- increased by 6,000 head to 53,000 head in the two states. Combined breeding hog inventories, at 12,000 head, increased by 1,000 head.
Nationally, the inventory of all hogs and pigs, at 66.3 million head, was down slightly from the prior year.
Hog prices, which were below the cost of production for much of 2012, are now trending higher. While the farm price received for lean hogs was 62.30 cents per pound in early December, February futures trading is 85.725 cents per pound.
The NASS report is counterintuitive to Brad Thornton, president of the Idaho Pork Producers Association. Thornton, of Kuna, believes high feed costs should have discouraged increases in pork production. He also believes hog numbers in Washington and Idaho are too small to accurately reflect a trend and can be skewed by isolated circumstances on a few large farms.
"Personally, I have expanded a little bit. That's because we found a market that somebody wanted us to raise some pigs for them," Thornton said.
Burley, Idaho, hog farmer Reed Gibby believes USDA likely erred in its estimates.
"That 12 percent increase is a bogus number," Gibby said. "Of course the pork industry has been decimated, just like any of the industries depending on corn and commodities for feeding."
Gibby believes onerous government regulations and hurdles for permitting new hog farms have stymied the industry.
NASS statistician Mary Jones believes the report's estimates are accurate, but she concurs the size of the pool may be too small to draw accurate conclusions on trends. NASS notes in the report that the Idaho and Washington numbers are combined "to avoid disclosing data for individual operators."
Jones said NASS surveyed producers from an established list and supplemented those numbers by making a projection derived from in-depth surveys of specific areas of the state.
"That's where we find a lot of our little guys. Our little guys aren't on a lot of lists," Jones said.