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.
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.”