Getting more pigs and people to process them into Maple Leaf Foods’ hog-killing plant in Brandon isn’t as simple as putting more dollars on the table, said the plant’s Morgan Curran-Blaney.
“There’s not enough (pigs) so you end up stealing from somebody else,” Curran-Blaney told reporters July 10 after speaking at the Keystone Agricultural Producers’ general council meeting. “The same goes on the employee side. In terms of paying, our issue isn’t in terms of wages, our issue is in terms of access to people.
“The unemployment rates in Brandon are extremely low and that’s an issue.”
An upper-end wage at Maple Leaf is $19 an hour, plus benefits, he said.
Maple Leaf Foods’ plant is a major contributor to Brandon’s economy, Curran-Blaney said. The plant is also critical to Manitoba’s hog producers and the provincial economy, added Andrew Dickson, general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council.
Neither shortage is easily overcome. Unemployment is low in southern Manitoba and workers can get jobs in Manitoba’s growing oilpatch or beyond.
The plant already relies on foreign workers, most of whom become Canadians. Maple Leaf is still assessing what impact tighter rules for the Temporary Foreign Workers’ program will have on its operations.
As for hog production, the problem lies with provincial regulations that essentially block new barns by requiring a $1-million anaerobic digester to process manure, according to Dickson.
“Our relations with the provincial government, at times, are strained,” he said while introducing Curran-Blaney.
Anaerobic digesters don’t reduce phosphorus in pig manure, Dickson said. That means farmers still have to rotate the fields on which they apply manure.
“But you can’t get this point through to an urban government,” he said. “It doesn’t get it.”
In a recent letter to the Manitoba Co-operator Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said the government won’t allow unrestricted province-wide hog production at the expense of the environment.
“Any pilot project proposal… must demonstrate zero negative impact on water quality and include effective odour control measures,” he wrote.
There are other obstacles. Manitoba exports more than three million weanlings a year to the United States. That market becomes even more attractive when the Canadian dollar is less than par with the U.S. Manitoba feeders have to pay a competitive price to keep them here.
Besides that, Manitoba’s hog barns are also aging.
“We have a banking issue right now because banks won’t lend against old assets in order to build a new barn,” he said.
A barn’s value is based on its projected earnings, which up until recently was low. Hog farmers are making money today, but need to for a couple more years to make up years of losses, he said.
“We’re trapped,” Dickson said. “Our barns are aging. The next big crisis is we can’t get insurance and if you can’t get any insurance on your barn, you can’t borrow anything.
“I’m not sure how long some of our processing capacity can last at this sort of rate.”
Maple Leaf Foods’ 640,000-square-foot plant, which opened in 1999, is operating at 75 per cent capacity, killing 65,000 to 70,000 hogs a week, when it should be doing 90,000, or more — which is an extra one million hogs a year.
At full capacity that plant needs 2,300 employees. Now it is running with 1,900, Curran-Blaney said. The company loses 40 employees a month and is only able to hire 12 Canadians a month to replace them, he said.
“We have historically relied on the foreign worker program to boost that population,” Curran-Blaney said.
Seventy-five per cent of Maple Leaf’s Brandon employees are “foreign” but only eight per cent are non-Canadian, he said.
Employee hours were cut during the winter. To encourage staff to stay, the afternoon kill shift was slowed so employees could get enough hours in. At full production, dressing floor workers process 1,250 hogs an hour.
“It’s almost like an automotive plant in terms of the speed that we run,” Curran-Blaney said. “Each employee has got about three seconds per hog to do their job.”
Later, Starbuck farmer Ed Rempel suggested the fast pace might be partly why worker turnover is high. Curran-Blaney said Maple Leaf takes worker health and safety in mind, with a focus on ergonomics.
Most Manitoba hog farmers would expand their operations if they could right now because they are making money, but government regulations are in the way, said Curran-Blaney. The solution isn’t removing environmental regulations, but it isn’t the status quo either, he said. The industry and government must agree on common objectives and then find ways to achieve them, he said.
“I think at the end of the day if it were an easy answer, it would be fixed,” Curran-Blaney said. “Nobody wants to see an industry suffer. By the same token the industry certainly doesn’t want to see the environment put in jeopardy.”
Curran-Blaney agreed sustainable hog production boils down to managing manure in an economic way.
“That’s the discussion that has to happen,” he said.
In the meantime, Maple Leaf Foods will manage through its problems, he said.
But it isn’t easy. American plants have fewer environmental restrictions and lower labour costs. So how does Maple Leaf Foods compete?
Curran-Blaney paused for 11 seconds before answering. “That’s a good question.
“A big part is the skill set we have here. We are able to capture certain customers that a U.S. plant can’t. And we also have very good relationships with our customers.”
And then there’s the hogs themselves.
“Canadian hogs are known the world over for their quality.”