What is really uncool about COOL, according to Manitoba farmer Marg Rempel, “is, first, that Canada imposes no such restrictions on American pork,” which pours into Canada at a rate of 150,000 tonnes a year, and that Canadian pork is “just plain better than much of the American stuff”—she holds that the cold Canadian climate produces exquisite loins and chops of a consistency you don’t get in the States.
“Then came the Feed Thing,” intones Bergmann—a kind of porcine Night of the Living Dead that can only be understood if one knows, as city folk sometimes do not, that pigs eat, among other things, corn, barley and oats (certainly not the kitchen slops that used to be saved for them in a pail by the stove).
One must also understand:
• that pigs eat a lot of corn, barley, etc.
• that such feed grains are expensive to buy and prepare, typically constituting up to two-thirds of the cost of bringing a pig to market
• that their cost is established not locally or even nationally but on the global commodities market, and is vulnerable to grain shortages or surpluses as far away as India and China.
Ultimately, one must understand that no matter how much a farmer pays out in feed costs, the price he gets for his animal is fixed by commodities dealers in Chicago or Des Moines. In an industry where profit margins are often thinner than the bacon at Weight Watchers, even the tiniest of influences from the other side of the globe can come rattling into local barns and bank accounts with calamitous consequences. “A cricket farts in Iowa,” declares Gary Unrau of Steinbach Hatchery and Feed, “and three prairie farmers are out of business. A palm tree falls on a tractor in Brazil, insurance prices hiccup, and three more farmers go down.”
For four years beginning in 2008, global grain and feed prices rose steadily—in part because of lacklustre crops in India and China (a voracious importer of corn at the best of times), in part because of the rising price of global oil, which pushes up the cost of running farm machinery or shipping grain.
“Then it was ethanol!” exclaims Bergmann, proceeding to point out that North American production of this corn-generated fuel has expanded during the past decade to where it now claims a preposterous 40% of the U.S. corn crop.
Even semantics appeared to be against the industry when, in 2009, the flu germ H1N1—initially dubbed “swine flu”—found its way into people’s lungs, then into their heads as a mistaken co-efficient of contaminated pork.
About the same time, large-scale pig farms began taking a disproportionate share of criticism for the massive environmental degradation that was occurring in Lake Winnipeg.
“The phosphates and nitrates in Lake Winnipeg have no more to do with pig waste than with cattle or human waste,” objects Dr. Laurie Connor, head of swine research in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Science at the University of Manitoba. “Certainly, we’ve had a challenge getting waste under control here in the province. But we have a very clear code in place, ethical as well as environmental, and every farmer in Manitoba is attempting to meet it.” Connor is indignant that last year the City of Winnipeg for weeks dumped untreated human sewage into the Red River. “Straight on into Lake Winnipeg,” she says. “It was a disgrace. And the farmers take the blame.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given all these reputational hits, pork consumption has been dropping in Canada—from 23 kilograms per capita in 2007 to 21 kilograms in 2011.
“This was supposed to be a recovery year,” sighs Bergmann. “Feed costs were stabilizing. Pork futures looked good. We were coming back.”
Until the drought. An act of God. A meteorological lightning bolt—straight into the U.S. heartland, which supplies most of America’s and a good portion of Canada’s corn.
There is barely a soul in the pig industry who can resist the word “skyrocketed” in describing what happened to feed prices as the influence of the drought settled. “When I was in Iowa a few years ago,” says Dickson, “the price of a bushel of corn was $1.70. But last summer when I was down, it was over $8.”