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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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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 Results have shown the less restrictive housing to be pretty much as conducive to healthy motherhood as are the outdated stalls.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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