Montana hog plant envisioned near border

Montana pork producers are taking a wait-and-see approach in regard to a new pork-processing plant at Shelby that could draw large numbers of Canadian hogs.

Governor Brian Schweitzer announced in February that Chinese investors were interested in developing a facility capable of processing 800,000 pigs. But additional details are scarce.

“At this point there’s no proposal,” said John Adams, a reporter with the Great Falls Tribune who has been covering the story. “Nobody has made an application. As far as I know, there’s not even a specific company that’s proposing this.”

This isn’t the first time the idea of a Shelby plant has been floated. Most of the state’s hogs are processed in California and Idaho.

“The governor says China wants this pork, we can provide it, so let’s get a pork-processing plant built,” said Adams. “There’s been talk for a long time about a pork facility in Shelby as part of a new intermodal hub. There would be a number of different companies that would use this hub for transporting and putting products in containers. Some of which would go on trains and shipped to the West Coast or the Midwest. Others would go on trucks.”

Southern option

Although Montana’s pork industry is much smaller than Alberta’s, producers north of the border would benefit from having another potential buyer, said Jim Haggins, chairman of Alberta Pork.

“Their (hog producers) are almost 100 per cent Hutterite colonies,” said Haggins. “It’s considerably smaller in Montana. But as you suspected, that location would be an attraction for producers out of southern Alberta. Anybody south of Claresholm would be closer to a plant in Shelby than they would to Red Deer, for instance.”

Currently, Alberta is home to four federally inspected pork processors — Olymel in Red Deer, which processes 35,000 head weekly; Maple Leaf Meats in Lethbridge, which processes 6,500 head per week; Sunterra Meats at Trochu with 3,000 weekly; and Sturgeon Valley Pork in Morinville, which processes 2,000 each week.

“That’s not anywhere close to their capacity though — there’s actually excess packing capacity right now so that’s causing producers to shift around to the best financial market,” said Haggins, adding that Alberta pork is also being processed in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Shelby is 30 minutes from the Canadian border and a plant processing 10,000-plus pigs weekly would require animals from Canada to be efficient.

“It is a strategic location for them,” Haggins said. “There have been rumblings of that for the last five years or so. Shelby has been considered before — if it goes ahead, that’s all good news. It’s a long road. They talk about having construction next year, but we’ll see.”

Alberta produces 2.3 million market hogs per year, which is down sharply since the market collapse in 2009.

“Our sow base was capable of producing four million (market hogs) before, but the sow base has dropped by about a third,” said Haggins. Alberta is currently home to 135,000 sows.

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