“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.
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.