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.
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.