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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)

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It is a morning in early December, and in a cavernous hall lit by migraine fluorescents on the third floor of the Winnipeg Convention Centre, a somewhat grumpy parade, mostly of men, shuffles around among exhibits devoted to boar semen and barn flooring, pig farrowing and feed systems. Even for Southern Manitoba, Hog and Poultry Days is a conservative gathering (in prairie pig farming, the only individuals sporting piercings and tattoos are the pigs). Many of those present wear Mennonite fedoras or baseball hats covering ’60s crew cuts or modified mullets; and if you are one of them, you are, to say the least, edgy, even anxious, on this morning of whispered phone calls and muted conversations in shadowy corners of the convention barn.

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Your nervousness is not because you’ve lost money on virtually every pig you’ve sent to market in the past six months or because dozens of your fellow pig farmers in Manitoba have been forced into bankruptcy, or even further into the socio-agricultural sub-basement. Nor is it because of the almost biblical run of plagues and ill winds that have hit Canadian pig producers during the past few years.

More particularly on this pre-holiday morning, with snow falling somewhere beyond the windowless walls—with an amplified voice announcing every 10 minutes that the annual charity Hog and Poultry Days Chicken-Wing Eating Competition is about to begin—you are jittery because the Grinch is coming. He is coming this Saturday, two days from now, and he is coming with all the moral authority of the original scourge of Whoville.

He is coming in the form of a television program called W5—coming right on up to the old barn door. Your barn door. Some folks at Hog and Poultry Days have seen a preview of the program; a few are in it as commentators on the dispiriting secret video taken by an undercover animal rights activist in an industrial pig barn in Arborg last summer.

“What is a barn,” the prairie poet George Amabile asked, “but a head whose dreams are live animals?”

If it is a Manitoba barn this week, it is a head dizzied by potential catastrophe. Scant weeks have passed since Puratone Corp. of Niverville, the country’s fourth-largest pig producer, with 41 barns and an annual output of half a million swine, declared that it was $93 million in the hole and had graduated its last pig. (Maple Leaf Foods has since purchased the company’s assets for $42 million but not its debts, leaving financial strain and ill will—what one observer described as “a wide strewing of manure”—across much of southeastern Manitoba.)

During the same week, Big Sky Farms of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, the country’s second-largest pig producer, announced that it was unable to carry on under nearly $70 million in debts and was going into receivership. In January, Olymel, Quebec’s giant pork processor, and the lone bidder, bought the company’s assets for $65 million.

“All of which says nothing—nothing—of the hundreds of smaller pig barns and family farms that have gone down on the prairies during the past couple of years,” laments Rick Bergmann, whose Steinbach-area farm sends thousands of three-week-old piglets out into the world each year to be raised by farmers who have thus far been spared.

Andrew Dickson, general manager of the province’s hog promotion agency, Manitoba Pork, is protective of the identities of the fallen pork men. He recalls one battered farmer, a Swiss immigrant, who invested heavily a few years back, accumulated barns and debt—“and gradually fell out the bottom,” says Dickson. “He left the province bankrupt and embittered.”

Some failed farmers moved to town, he says, while others are still living next to empty barns, “supporting their families by selling feed or agricultural products.” Rick Vaags, whose family is an agricultural legend in the vicinity of Dugald, Manitoba, recently rescinded a decades-long commitment to pigs, emptied his barns, and is now “just a grain grower,” as he puts it, feeding other farmers’ pigs off land that once fed his own.

The skinny here is that the industry is one of the oldest in the country, hearkening back to the first tiny farms and villages of the seigneuries along the shores of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers during the mid-1600s. Those historic fields and farrowing dens evolved gradually into the pigpens and barnyards of Canada’s iconic family farms of the 20th century. When exchange rates were favourable to an exporting industry during the 1980s and ’90s, those same family farms evolved into corporate pig operations and the vastly expanded private farms that are most in trouble today. “Times were good, we were making some money, we expanded,” says Nelson King, a onetime Ontario pig farmer who left the business during the 1990s, “while there was still something left to sell.” King says competition, plain and simple, was what exploded the industry. “If you didn’t keep up with the farms around you and with competition from the expanding U.S. industry, if you didn’t borrow, borrow, borrow, you didn’t stand a chance.”

Bigger stakes brought bigger farmers to the barn, including the likes of Smithfield Foods in the United States and Maple Leaf Foods in Canada, both of which were at one time strictly meat packers, but are now also the largest producers of pigs, which is to say pig farmers, in the U.S. and Canada, respectively.

Today, the Canadian industry employs 67,500 people directly and is worth $21.3 billion annually to the national economy. Canadian barns generate some 30 million market pigs a year, making Canada the world’s 10th-largest producer (China is first at 650 million a year). As the world’s third-largest pork exporter (1.15 billion kilos), Canada annually ships the equivalent of one thick pork chop or five slices of bacon for every human being on the planet.

Manitoba alone raises some eight million pigs a year (down from nine million in 2010), followed by Quebec with 7.5 million, Ontario with six million, and Alberta with three million. Once a runt in the Canadian industry, Manitoba surged to prominence during the 1990s, in part because of the elimination of the Crow Rate, which had equalized the cost of shipping grain or goods by rail from the prairies or Central Canada to the Pacific. “Suddenly,” says Andrew Dickson, “it was a lot more expensive to send Manitoba crop to the coast. So we started feeding pigs with it right here in the province—pound for pound, they were a lot cheaper to ship than grain.” There were ready markets both for piglets and market pigs in Minnesota and North Dakota; and when Maple Leaf Foods decided to take advantage of the abundance of feed grain in the province and built a vast processing plant in Brandon during the late 1990s, the marriage of pigs and prairie folk was consummated.

Unfortunately for family farms, it did not turn out to be a marriage conducive to longevity. Since 2006, the number of pig farms in Manitoba has dropped from 1,180 to 575, most of the casualties being small operations. Accordingly, from 2005 to 2012, the average number of pigs shipped by each farm rose from 2,279 annually to 5,026.

For point of reference, the animals we so commonly dismiss as dirty, smelly, ignorant, slop-eating subservients are in fact one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth (ranked fourth in cognitive capability behind chimps, dolphins and elephants); are obsessively clean (they roll in mud strictly as a means of cooling off because they have no sweat glands); and are one of the loudest entities on the planet, able to squeal at 115 decibels, a bit louder than an unmuffled Concorde.

The largest pig ever, Big Bill, won the “big boar” contest at a Tennessee fair during the early 1930s, weighing in at 2,552 pounds, about the weight of a Toyota Corolla.

While Big Bill himself was never a problem for the Canadian industry, he is, given his size and citizenship, a near-perfect metaphor for something that is very much a problem: namely, that we live next to a snorting big country whose every footfall and rollover can create trauma in the pig barns of the north.

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Like many Southern Manitoba pig producers, Rick Bergmann is a religious man, a Mennonite whose recital of the torments that have been visited upon the Canadian pig industry during the past dozen years echoes a portion of the Bible wherein the Heavenly Farmer Himself brought down the punishments.

“Things were fantastic for our guys when our dollar was worth 66 cents right up into the early 2000s,” says Bergmann. Canadian farmers, who were selling 10 million pigs and around a million tonnes of cut pork directly into the American market annually, got accustomed to being paid in a currency that, back home, translated into generous profits. But the largesse evaporated like methane as the currencies drew toward parity between 2008 and 2010.

“Then came COOL,” sighs Bergmann. That’s Country of Origin Labelling, a U.S. initiative from 2007 that, basically, put “Made in Canada” stickers on Canadian meat for sale in the U.S., even on meat from Canadian weaners raised in the U.S. The move turned patriotic Americans against the northern product to the extent that Canadian exports to the U.S. dropped from 10 million pigs in 2006 to half that amount in 2009.

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.”

While the price paid for a pig at the slaughterhouse slumped to $150, the cost of feeding the pig spiked at more than $200. “People were sending everything they had to market, sows and all,” shrugs Dickson. “Couldn’t afford to feed them any more.”

And now, on a morning in December, with Puratone and Big Sky gone, with empty barns all over Manitoba, with the cost of feeding a pig just barely less than the money that can be made from selling that pig at market, the Grinch is coming, the Inquisitor, the one who, as T.S. Eliot put it, knows how to ask questions.

The rumour at Hog Days is that the W5 program will include footage of some reprehensible animal husbandry. “I’m sure it’s at least partly about gestation stalls,” says Bergmann, referring to the cramped individual pens where, in many Canadian barns, gestating sows spend the better part of their lives, unable to move more than a few inches. “The animal-rights people have been running protest ads on TV about them.”

Bergmann’s great hope is that somehow, miraculously, the NHL lockout will end, and there will be hockey Saturday night, and that people will be watching the puck, not the pigs.

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As it turns out, there is an almost cartoon simplicity to the choices pig farmers have in keeping the sky aloft as the torments of the age rain down upon them. “You either go big or you go small,” says George Matheson, who has farmed pigs near Stonewall for 30 years and who, in his recent decision to go small, has taken to selling his market-ready animals directly to consumers who want what he calls “good meat raised in healthy conditions on a little family farm.”

By contrast, HyLife Foods, Canada’s largest privately owned producer and processor, has expanded to a point where it is selling 1.4 million animals a year—nearly 4,000 a day—to the restaurants, dining tables and lard factories of the world. “If you’re that big,” says Derek Brewin, who teaches agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba, “your profits are about volume, maybe just a few dollars a pig after your employees are paid and your debt serviced and your invoices and taxes covered.”

Whether you’re big or small, adds Brewin, “you have to be ruthlessly efficient.” This requires, among other things, maximizing piglet production and survival. “These days,” says Andrew Dickson, “a good sow gives birth to an average of 2.4 litters a year, about 25 piglets. If you lose one or two piglets, there goes all the advantage you’ve worked so hard to achieve.”

Efficiency has also given rise to the controversial gestation stalls, whose original purpose was to isolate and calm pregnant sows, prevent them from having to compete for food, from fighting, from stressing one another out, which can lead to smaller or premature litters.

However, in Mondo Pig (as in industries ranging from hospitality to entertainment to travel) it is, more than anything, the concept of vertical integration that has come to signify efficiency. According to George Matheson, the term describes “control of every factor, from a pig’s beginnings as a shot of boar spunk, through weaning, feeding, butchering and marketing” to its culinary debut as as a pulled-pork sandwich or a ginger-baked ham.

HyLife is a paragon of what can be achieved through such a strategy. “Farm gate to kitchen plate” summarizes Denis Vielfaure, one of a trio of brothers who in 2008 with their partner Don Janzen converted a smallish rural slaughterhouse owned by a co-operative of Mennonite swine farmers into a state-of-the-art plant east of Neepawa. HyLife owns local barns housing some 60,000 sows that give birth to a million or more of the pigs that are processed annually at the plant, while another 400,000 come from independent farmers. “Instead of covering somebody else’s profits in growing feed or managing genetics or transporting animals,” says Vielfaure, “we pay ourselves to do those things.”

The company pays itself again in cutting and packaging the loins or livers or heads it ships to China or Japan, or the oven-ready ribs it custom-cuts for the Tony Roma’s restaurant chain. Or the mountains of yellowish skin that go to Mexico for makeup and pharmaceuticals. Or the blood for the feed mills; or the bones for the porcelain industry; or the rubbery little pig rectums, pinkish sea creatures that go to Beijing and Seoul, where they are a delicacy on the order of snake liver or dog tongue.

Down the road in Brandon, Maple Leaf Foods owns its own vast city of sows and market pigs, processing more than four million of the latter a year, conking and cutting them, one every eight seconds, round the clock, month in, month out. The $150-million plant, intended to make Maple Leaf a global competitor in pork, was not an immediate success when it opened in 1999. Having swallowed up processors such as Burns, Bittner’s and Schneiders, the company envisioned a quick ascent to a production capacity of 90,000 hogs a week. But initially there were supply issues and dissatisfied employees (yearly turnover was 100%), as well as a controversy over Mexican workers paying significant sums of money to get into Canada to work at the plant. Then came a tainted-meat scandal at the company’s Toronto plant in 2008. All of which, it is said, made the company more resilient.

So competitive is the Brandon plant today—so slim the margins, so pressing the requirement to keep the machinery and employees working max flat out all the time—that Maple Leaf employs a “Procurement Service Team,” guys with briefcases and managerial ambitions whose job title might suggest foot soldiers to the sex trade, when rather their role is to locate every pig they can, in every corner of the West, so that the immense roaring flesh factory on Richmond Avenue just east of town never has to stop producing.

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For decades there have been rumours about slaughterhouses (never eat meat from such-and-such a plant, whisper those who have worked and quit—it’s rotten, it’s diseased, it’s covered in shit); the words “nightmare” and “hell” surface routinely in descriptions of, say, the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, where 36,000 pigs are bled out and butchered a day. Into the 1960s, pigs and steers were killed with a blow to the head or 300 volts to the frontal lobe, followed by a shiv to the jugular. The boxer George Chuvalo hardened his muscles wielding a sledgehammer at the Burns plant in Toronto’s west end in the 1950s. Servicemen in Vietnam were said to be “on the killing floor.”

“It’s not pretty,” says Vielfaure at HyLife. Nor is it sweet-smelling. Nor quiet. Yet on a day when, like the rest of the industry, Vielfaure is awaiting W5’s indictment with a certain restlessness—a day on which he has everything to lose and everything to gain—he has decided to take a visitor on a tour of what he innocuously calls “the plant.” The place is a steamy factory of stunning architectural banality set amidst wheat and soybean fields on a part of the prairie where if you can get up to a height of 20 feet above ground level, you can see more or less to the ends of the known universe.

The view inside is an end of another sort. And is a means to an end for Vielfaure, who would seem to have a plan, albeit a modest one that suits his visitor. “We have nothing to hide,” he says (summarizing said plan) as he and his guest don high rubber boots, quilted vests, white butcher robes and hard hats.

Not only does Vielfaure have nothing to hide, he is proud of what he and his family have built: of the barns and plant—and of their contribution to the community, where a century of traditional demographics has been sent hock over searing-kettle by the farm siblings from La Broquerie.

The gist of the change is that during the past couple of years, some 800 Filipinos and Koreans have moved to Neepawa, many of them to take jobs at the rapidly expanding plant. What was for decades a rather staid and very pale-skinned population—of Anglo-Saxons and Icelanders and Ukrainians—is suddenly a place where a fifth of the population converses in neither of the country’s official languages and the supermarkets stock Cebu dried mangoes and 50-pound bags of Manila rice.

In the plant, obligatory ear plugs reduce the howl of the machinery to a white din that under the Vegas lights, before the conga-line of dead pigs, is as isolating and unreal as a misadventure in LSD. One of the first things you notice is that almost every one of the hundreds of people clomping around in rubber Wellingtons, wearing hair nets, hard hats and white gowns, is swinging an unsheathed and magnificently lethal butcher knife. Or they are at a saw that, in the blink of an eye, severs a head or cuts a carcass into hams, shoulders and a couple of keyboards of ribs.

“They come in over there,” shouts Vielfaure, pointing through an entry door toward a large open corral, where hundreds of pigs are lying around, nuzzling at one another, grunting softly or sleeping. It is the foyer, the welcome area, a de facto meditation zone, where more than 100,000 of them a month are given three hours’ respite before their 10-second appearance in the show.

On emerging from quiet time, they settle into the parade of no return, some showing a vivacious curiosity about what lies ahead. In groups of eight or 10, they are herded into a cylindrical gas chamber (CO2) from which three minutes later they tumble as dead as logs. When they have been secured by a back leg onto an overhead track, an employee named Jim—a stern little Punchinello who from 21 years on the job has forearms the size of fence posts—runs his blade firmly across each jugular, releasing a scarf of red silk that drains more quickly than you might imagine into a floor-level sink the size of a Roman bath. The carcasses are then plunged into near-boiling water, are scraped of hair and are slit jowl to bowel by a middle-aged Filipino man who glares at each nippled stomach as it comes before him, and opens it with less emotion than he might apply to unzipping a garment bag. He dodges as 40 pounds of guts and organs, including a liver the colour of lilacs, kidneys as brown as pecans, burst forth into a stainless steel tub. Carcass and guts stay together on the line until they reach a federal inspector who, like a woman rummaging through her purse, pushes and pulls at the innards, looking for irregularities that might indicate a diseased or subpar animal.

Beyond its intrinsic fascinations, the plant is an object lesson in the broader dimensions of the industry: the vast scale, the slim margins, the global reach, the fastidious demands of the marketplace, the ever-pressing ethics of doing things right, of respecting the animals, not to mention the workers and those who will eventually consume the pork.

At the exit gate, shippers deposit the high-end cuts bound for Japan (“fresh chilled” but never frozen) in partitioned white boxes with calligraphic labelling deemed sufficiently elegant for the connoisseurs who will be paying top yen to get them. So important has the global market become to HyLife that, in mid-January, the company, which had long sought an investor, sold a third of its operation to its major Japanese customer, Itochu, in a bid to open further Asian markets.

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It was in 2005 that George Matheson decided that he had had enough of raising pigs at a rate of 1,200 a year, of losing money, or making a pittance, marketing them at a price determined in an office tower in Chicago.

Today, Matheson and his wife, Shelley, house just 20 sows and about 200 feeders, as well as some chickens. Their boar Arthur has ballooned to 800 pounds (from 600), making him too “boarish” for market and too fat to caress his favourite sows, who can no longer support him on their backs. Matheson is sheepish in acknowledging that Arthur, with his brass earring and lecherous grin, has become “a bit of a pet—which has never happened here before.”

George and Shelley’s operation is so small that on a recent morning when one of their half-dozen egg customers came to the door for a dozen, Shelley could rustle up just 11—“a farmer’s dozen” according to George, as their contented customer handed over a few coins and departed down the oak-shaded lane in his black sedan.

Matheson says, “It costs me roughly $180 to feed a pig to market weight, another $200 to get it locally butchered and packed, and then I add $200 for myself when I sell it. My customers are getting their meat for the same price they’d be paying at the supermarket, except they know where it came from and exactly how it was raised.”

Marg Rempel, who farms at Landmark, southeast of Winnipeg, voices admiration for both the Mathesons and the Vielfaures. But she has not followed either of their examples, continuing rather to run a medium-sized family farm with 450 sows that produce 11,000 market pigs a year.

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.

The most glaring of such practices are certainly not condoned by the Five Freedoms guidelines now encouraged by the province and particularly by the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agriculture. While farmers and industry spokesmen mount an ever-less-convincing defence of, say, gestation stalls, such stalls are decidedly in violation of “Freedom 4” of the Guidelines—that an animal be “free to express normal behaviour.”

“The show will almost certainly hurt the industry,” says Derek Brewin. “How much depends on how persistent the activists are and how quickly the industry adjusts.” Those who doubt the efficacy of animal-rights activists might recall that the global trade in furs, a multibillion-dollar business, was pretty much wiped out during the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Gestation stalls have recently come under the eye of the pig industry itself—in Manitoba, through the work of Laurie Connor at the U of M’s agricultural research station, where she and others have been experimenting with “group housing” for gestating sows. Results have shown the less restrictive housing to be pretty much as conducive to healthy motherhood as are the outdated stalls.

Animal welfare is in a sense the last frontier in the pig business, both socially and economically—a frontier that other country’s industries have crossed and which Canada is edging its way toward, perhaps now hastened by the W5 program. Denmark’s huge pig industry abandoned gestation stalls in 1999, as did the U.K. As of the start of this year, the stalls were banned throughout the entire European Union. “Standards are changing,” says Connor. “If the public perception of our industry is negative in any way, no matter what our reasons for doing the things we do, we’d be foolish not to listen and respond.”

Not long ago, Connor made a presentation to a group of Saskatchewan farmers about group penning and open gestation zones. “There I was,” she says, “attempting to interest them in conversions that in some cases will cost them millions of dollars [$600 per sow, conservatively], when all the while they’re being eaten up by concerns over how to service their debts and buy feed and put shoes on their kids’ feet. Some of these guys have suffered big losses. I felt almost guilty.”

According to Derek Brewin, the cost of not responding to public perception may eventually be far harder on the industry than the cost of addressing change now.

Other aspects of the industry are looking up. Futures prices on grain are lower; pig prices are trending up; the federal government’s AgriMarketing program is working with industry representatives to develop foreign sales. In 2008, HyLife Foods established as-yet-unprofitable sow barns in China, with the hope of expanding its reach in the world’s largest market for pork, which is growing by 2% a year.

An international tribunal has ruled that COOL violates trade law and must be abandoned by the U.S. by May, 2013.

If there is a positive element to the carnage of the past year, it’s that the price paid for pigs will now trend upwards. “Guys get out, flood the market with pigs, prices go down,” says Andrew Dickson. “With fewer pigs around, prices go back up.” Endless boom and bust.

But don’t relax yet. Argentina, one of the world’s largest producers of feed grain, recently announced that heavy rains have prevented farmers from getting the country’s corn crop in the ground—a potential new disaster for feed prices.

Meanwhile, back at Hog and Poultry Days, on the north side of the convention hall, near a windowed refrigeration unit full of award-winning pig carcasses, a table supports dozens of consumer items that come at least partially from pigs: leather shoes, footballs, lipstick, paint, fabric softener, glue.

A blockish young farmer in safety-orange suspenders pores over the goods, perhaps wondering what part of the pigs back home in Winkler go into Phazyme Extra Strength Gas Relief Tablets.

A Grade 3 class approaches and examines the products. “Do they get meat from pigs?” one kid asks, to which the attendant explains that we get bacon.

“Oh, I love bacon!” says a girl. “I never knew it came from pigs!” There is a pause, and she says, “Do they live?”

The attendant smiles. The farmer smiles. An observer recalls the old joke about the sadistically sentimental woman who, rather than kill her pig outright as she consumes it, fits it with one wooden leg after another, so that it is somehow able to keep hobbling around the yard.

Much like the industry itself.

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MFI-T Maple Leaf Foods 19.72 0.05
0.254 %
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