His dad told him not to farm. Marcel Hacault decided to do it anyway — in any way he could.
“I think that was pretty common,” Hacault told the Co-operator. Farming wasn’t a popular occupation when he was a young man.
Hacault grew up on a mixed farm near Mariapolis, in south-central Manitoba. They ran a small feedlot, about 700 acres of cropland and a few cows milked by hand.
“Dad said it built character,” said Hacault.
As he grew up, his parents insisted he get a post-secondary education. He started in engineering.
“That was when there were many manufacturers in Winnipeg,” he said, “Versatile, Co-op Implements and others.
“I had so much fun that I had to repeat the year,” Hacault added.
He hit pause on university and “took a year off… to find myself” by working on a farm in France.
When he returned to Canada, he transferred his studies to agriculture and took on a degree in plant science. He figured he could get a job as an agronomist or chemical salesperson — there were a lot of those jobs, and they paid well.
But Hacault quickly realized he wanted to farm. “I liked it. I guess it’s just one of those things.
“Dad was too young to retire,” he said. “I bid on some land adjacent to the farm but did not get it.
“When I ran the numbers, the only thing that cash flowed at the time were hogs,” he added.
He and his wife found a farm they could afford near Niverville and in 1983 they set up a hog operation.
“I knew nothing about hogs,” Hacault said. “I still remember the first day I went out to feed the gilts. I remember saying to myself… ‘I hope I like this, because I’ll be doing it for a long time.’”
Hacault was the only one out of nine siblings to go into farming, and his father didn’t entirely reconcile himself to the profession.
Fortunately, Hacault quickly added agriculture organizational work to his resumé.
His dad would say his son was a farmer, “but really he’s the chair of Manitoba Pork, or he’s vice-president with Keystone Ag. He’d always caveat it with that,” Hacault joked.
He got involved with Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) when the organization instituted a mandatory checkoff payment.
“I thought there was no way someone was taking my $75 without me having a say,” Hacault said.
At a KAP annual general meeting in 1997, a couple of friends asked him to let his name stand for vice-president.
He was elected, just ahead of the 1997 “flood of the century” and became responsible for organizing flood relief programs for farmers in the deluged Red River Valley.
“That was a baptism by fire… or by water,” he said.
The hog industry was in the midst of large-scale changes as the ’90s came to a close. In 1996, the Manitoba government abolished the single-desk marketing system for hogs.
As Hacault describes it, two separate organizations were established in its place: the Manitoba Pork Council to represent producers’ interests, and a marketing group (which would eventually become [email protected]).
Hacault was a delegate on the Manitoba Pork board as it was reorganized. Someone asked him if he’d consider chairing. He’d just stepped away from the KAP vice-president role because it had become too time consuming.
“Just come to the meeting,” he was told.
Hacault remembered meeting in the basement of the Windsor Park Inn. Gerry Friesen, then chair of Manitoba Pork, led the election. The directors voted. Hacault was chair.
When the election was over, Hacault recalls, Friesen said to him, “‘It’s all yours, Marcel,’ and he walked away.” Hacault laughed. “Everyone looked at me.”
At the time, many people assumed the council wouldn’t do much, Hacault said. They assumed the marketing group would have all the power.
“I’d like to think that we showed them wrong,” he said.
Hacault would continue in the chair role until 2004. In 2005 he’d exit the hog industry.
“My barns were old, I had limited land, and with the new environmental regulations I could not rebuild,” he said. “I looked at all the options, including building a barn on Dad’s land. Nothing seemed to work out financially.”
Instead, Hacault decided to go back to university and get a master of business administration (MBA). He also handed out resumés — one to a small organization he knew little about, other than it worked in safety and agriculture. That organization was the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).
CASA hired him as its executive director in 2004, and Hacault would end up taking his MBA concurrently.
More than 16 years later, Hacault is slated to retire from that role in March. Though he went in knowing very little about the ag safety industry, he said it was the people who made him stay.
“They’re passionate and they care about farmers,” he said. “I know sometimes farmers get their shorts in a knot because we’re always telling them what they should do… but really it’s because we want everyone to go home at the end of the day.”
It’s been a challenge to get governments to recognize the importance of farm safety, said Hacault. It hasn’t been easy to get farmers to recognize this either.
“I think in the past it was almost a mark of valour to have a missing finger,” Hacault said.
When he was starting out as a farmer, unemployment was high so it was easy to keep workers or replace them if they got hurt, said Hacault.
There’s been progress.
“More farmers realize that if they want to be an employer of choice, they need to be able to compete with other industries, and that means having a safe work environment,” Hacault said.
“Younger farmers ‘get it.’ Although they want to pass on the love of farming to their children, they realize there are many hazards and have made changes.”
Over his time with CASA, the organization began the BeGrainSafe program, which trains emergency workers to rescue people from grain entrapment scenarios. In co-operation with Farm Credit Canada, CASA began the Back to Ag program, which helps farmers who’ve experienced life-altering injuries to adapt and return to farming.
As he moves into retirement, Hacault said he’s got few plans. He’s open to what comes his way. For now, his plans involve spending time with his four grandkids, finishing his basement and building a retaining wall on his yard.
“I still hope to be involved in some capacity with agriculture,” he said. “I have never been really able to do a lot of planning. Things just happen regardless. You just have to be ready to say ‘sure.’”