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.
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.
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