Manitoba’s hog production is not in line with its production capacity.
That was the message brought to the Manitoba Pork Council by Maple Leaf Foods president and CEO Michael McCain last week.
Speaking to members of the pork industry at the council’s annual general meeting in Winnipeg, the business leader said now is the time to pursue balance, but not through reckless expansion.
“We’re not advocating unbridled growth, we’re advocating an efficient industry that requires balance,” he said. “We’re also advocating, and I think demonstrating, that we support doing so in a sustainable, responsible way.”
The fundamentals for reaching that goal are in place, but McCain said realizing them still means there are challenges to overcome.
One of the biggest is getting enough pigs into its Brandon slaughtering facility, which instituted “non-production” days last year to deal with the shortage. Maple Leaf Foods’ 640,000-square-foot plant opened in 1999, and today is only operating at about 75 or 80 per cent of capacity.
“We have a capacity to process 90,000 hogs a week in Brandon, we’re currently processing 70,000,” McCain said. “So that’s idle capacity of 20,000 hogs a week or one million hogs per year. We think it’s in everybody’s interest to find the path to balance that.”
That means increasing production and building new barns, something that’s been nearly impossible for producers in Manitoba since new environmental legislation was enacted in 2008. But recent developments could soon open up fresh avenues for new barn construction in parts of the province, according to the pork council. That news was welcomed by McCain who said he believed 175 new barns would be needed in the coming years.
But it’s not just hogs that the Brandon plant is lacking, employees have also been hard to find and keep.
“On labour supply, we have more obstacles than we have support,” he said, adding that recent changes to the temporary foreign worker program will negatively impact Maple Leaf’s ability to fill jobs.
“In the temporary foreign worker program across the country, from coast to coast, there were issues, there were abuses, and they needed to be corrected, but Brandon, Manitoba (and) Manitoba at large, was not one of them,” he said. “We have the need, we have the infrastructure, it was managed responsibly and we think that’s an important component of getting back to a balanced and efficient industry.”
He added that of the more than 1,000 workers brought into Brandon under the program, over 800 of them are now permanent residents.
“That’s something we should be proud of,” he said.
The company has also run a successful domestic recruiting program across Canada, but it won’t be able to meet demand, according to McCain. He noted that Manitoba, and in particular Brandon, have very low rates of unemployment.
Those challenges aside, he remains optimistic.
“I have great confidence in the industry,” he said. “This is an industry with enduring success, and there’s always been obstacles to be overcome, but Manitoba and the Manitoba hog industry have always demonstrated their ability to overcome those obstacles and I think these will be no different.”