It might not make me very popular in some circles, but the imminent demise of the hog industry in Canada leaves me kind of cold. Oh, I’m as worried as anyone about the job losses in communities that rely on hog barns for local jobs. But the industry itself isn’t one that I brood over.
I thought about this the other day when I was discussing farm animals with my three-year-old grandson. He had seen cows, he told me, and horses and dogs, cats, chickens and sheep. But he had never seen a pig. Pictures yes, and the little piggies on the ends of his feet, but not a real live hog.
And, living in Saskatchewan, I reminded his parents, he wouldn’t be likely to see one. I couldn’t think of anyone in this area who raises hogs the way my father, and most of his neighbours did four decades ago. The closest thing to a hog around here is the odour that drifts in occasionally on the south wind from the huge complex of barns 20-odd miles south of here. And if I did want to take him there to see a pig, we would be unlikely to make it past the biosecurity layer around the barns.
As I said, there used to be lots of hogs raised on diversified farms in the Prairie region. Pigs had the title of mortgage lifters. Many farmers were in and out of pigs frequently. It was easy to ramp up numbers when prices were high, since pigs reproduce early, often and with large litters. It was just as easy to reduce numbers to a minimum when prices were low. Hence the notion of the four-year hog cycle.
When factory hog farms came along, the dynamic changed. Instead of reducing production in times of low prices, they doggedly kept on churning out pigs. They had to do something to cover their huge fixed costs. Prices responded by sinking and remaining low. Toss in the occasional closed border due to real or imagined disease threats, and hog farms have lost vast sums of money for over a decade. Of course, the low prices that battered the huge hog barns destroyed the little ones. Hogs disappeared from the Prairie landscape, to be sequestered in massive, sealed complexes.
No doubt the state of the industry is a surprise to many in government and elsewhere who saw factory hog production as another tool in the belt of rural development. Fifteen to 20 years ago, government bureaucrats and agricultural economists were lauding the development of the massive hog operation. Saskatchewan, we were told, would soon be producing three million hogs per year. Markets were expanding worldwide. Canada, especially the Prairies, had the lowest production costs in the world. We only had to build them, fill them, and prosperity would come.
The early barns looked good. What the public seldom knew was that they were propped up by government subsidies for everything from water development to building construction. Almost all of those early barns are gone now, and gone are the community dollars that poured into the pockets of the early entrepreneurs. The government of Saskatchewan still owns huge hunks of one hog empire, and loans from many years ago remain unpaid for many barns. These loans were to be repaid when profitability returned. Profitability remains elusive.
The truth is, we were never a particularly low-cost producer. American corn always had us beat. And every hog added to our inventory had to be exported, with most of these going to the U. S., to a country already a huge exporter itself. Other countries, with cheaper and more plentiful labour, were also increasing production. It isn’t surprising then, that it took the bubble only a decade and a half to burst.
Now, hog farmers across Canada have asked the government for a billion dollars in ad hoc payments to drag them through the worst crisis they’ve faced. What urban Canadians won’t know is just how few people actually raise hogs. They also won’t know that there is no light at the end of the hog tunnel, only a lot of desperate people hoping for a miracle.
Driving 25 miles south of Regina last week, I got a huge surprise. Rooting around by some wooden granaries near the road was a herd of footloose pigs, older sows by the look of them. I have no idea where they came from, or where they went. But as I went by, I gave them the thumbs up. At least for a short while, they were the only lucky ones in a sad industry.
Paul Beingessner writes from his farm near Truax, Sask.