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For Manitoba's huge pig industry, the last five years have been biblical in their awfulness (Ian Willms/Boreal Collective)

For Manitoba's huge pig industry, the last five years have been biblical in their awfulness

(Ian Willms/Boreal Collective)

ROB magazine

How Canada produces 5 slices of bacon for every person on the planet Add to ...

Rempel—slender, soft-spoken—possesses the attentive demeanour of a kindergarten teacher whose classroom just happens to be a barn and whose pupils are pigs (well, and nowadays a few goats and chickens). When her husband died nine years ago, she carried on the family business with her son, Jason.

“In terms of economics, I don’t know how Marg does it,” says an ally in the business who has known her for decades.

For one thing, she and Jason subsidize their operation with free labour.

Beyond that (if it is not too cynical to say so in the context of an industry wretched with losses and beset by ethical skepticism), she does it with love. She loves her farm, loves her family, loves the way of life, loves the land; is deeply concerned about soil degradation and corporate control of the industry and farmers who rely solely on hybridized seed and synthetic fertilizer. She loves what she calls “the creativity” of the young people who have taken up where their parents left off, but with a new roster of challenges. “I’m just so fascinated to see what they’re doing to survive.”

Rempel also does it with disdain—for an economy and social ethic that permit too much hardship for some, while others prosper at the expense of those who do not. And for government cutbacks in agricultural research, so that such research falls under the purview of corporations. “The farmer ends up paying far too much for it in the cost of seed, fertilizer, medical and genetics technology,” she says.

Rempel believes, perhaps naively, that if consumers only knew how little the farmer was getting of what is paid for a pound of pork chops or bacon, there would be a new consciousness and perhaps something of a change of attitude. “It could all be right there when the item gets scanned,” she says. “Or on a label the way they do with the nutritional breakdown of a product: The merchant gets this much, the wholesaler this much, the trucker this much, the processor this much, the insurance company this much, the seed manufacturer this much, the taxman this much. Way down at the bottom would be the farmer, the primary producer. Really, it’s shocking,” she says, “how little of what the consumer pays ends up in the hands of the farmer.”

Beyond her thoughtful postulations on a fairer and more mindful world, Rempel is also seat-of-the-pants practical and in effect has done what George Matheson has done, but as a sideline—and with goats of all things, and free-range chickens. “We’ve diversified!” she chirps, seeming to enjoy this spit in the eye of orthodoxy at a time when mixed farming is all but an economic sacrilege, if not agricultural suicide.

“We sell the goats at a price that works,” she says. “And we get to see who we’re selling to. And they get to see us. Whole families of Filipinos or Greeks, including the grandmothers, come out and choose an animal for Passover. Sometimes they take it away live.”

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On Dec. 8, W5 aired its lambasting of the Manitoba pork industry. The offending barn was owned by the bankrupt Puratone Corp., now part of Maple Leaf Foods, whose management voiced contempt for what was shown on the video: grim and corroded gestation stalls, against whose rusty steel bars the sows grind their teeth; the ill treatment and awkward euthanizing of a sick sow; the unanesthetized castration of week-old males and the docking of their tails, also without anesthetic. At one point, a sick sow is hauled along by its ears, protesting, to where it can be euthanized. A minute later, a young woman is seen hooting and laughing as she jumps, trampoline-style, on the distended stomach of the now-dead sow.

The program’s most disturbing scenes depict what farmers call “thumping,” the procedure by which a farmer dispatches a diseased or deformed piglet by grabbing its back leg and, with a mighty swing, banging its head onto concrete. The practice, common in the Canadian industry, is said to be as efficient and painless as any other method of killing a piglet. And perhaps is. But the sight of a pile of “thumped” piglets, some still twitching, is unlikely to endear the industry to even the least sensitive of bacon eaters.

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