It’s been seven years since the Manitoba Pork Council had a new face at the head of the board, but Rick Préjet of Notre Dame de Lourdes is ready to give it a go.
Préjet will be the next chair of the Manitoba Pork Council, after being elected in mid-April to replace long-serving chair George Matheson. The retiring chair stepped away from his role this year after almost 2-1/2 decades on the board. Of those 24 years spent at the table, 15 were as a director and seven were as chair.
Why it matters: The group represents the interests of Manitoba’s hog sector.
Préjet, for his part, comes into the role with 32 years in the hog industry and about a decade on the Manitoba Pork Council board itself. Of those, he has spent about six at the head of various committees, including the council’s human resources committee and industry performance committees.
Born and raised around Notre Dame de Lourdes, the Préjet family barns dot the landscape in a 10-mile radius around the small town of 700.
That farm experience, which he now brings to his role as head of the pork council board, crosses the gamut of the value chain and employs about 40-45 people in the region.
“We have sows, nurseries, finishers, our own feed mill, our own trucking operations, so we’re pretty much all in house,” he said.
Likewise, he noted, the operation sources its own replacement stock. The closed nature of the operation helps the farm control disease threats and helps “keep our costs as low as we possibly can,” he added.
Off the farm, and outside his work with the Manitoba Pork Council, Préjet has also dipped into the realm of research. Préjet spent nine years involved with the Prairie Swine Centre, a pork research organization based in Saskatoon, including several years as board chair until 2015.
Today, Préjet describes himself as “semi-retired” from day-to-day farm work. The last year has seen his son take over as general manager of the business, with Préjet in a support role.
“That’s what’s kind of allowed me to step up and take on the chair position with Manitoba Pork,” he said.
On the agenda
Préjet begins his tenure in the midst of the industry’s efforts to renegotiate hog-pricing formulas.
The issue came to a head last year, after COVID-19 risk slowed down or temporarily shut processors both in Canada and the United States. Plant closures and lower volumes bottlenecked supply, leaving pigs on both sides of the border backed up to the farm gate and sending hog prices diving.
The Canadian Pork Council eventually petitioned the federal government for aid, arguing that producers were losing at least $30 a head, while some weanlings in the cash market had lost their value entirely.
At the same time, independent producers noted with some resentment, pork coming out the other end of the processing line had not seen a similar drop in price. Many producers have since pushed the idea of a pricing formula with more weight to cut out value, which they argue would keep pork and hog prices moving in the same direction.
The gap led western Canadian producer groups, including Manitoba Pork, to join forces last year and broach the topic with major processors. That work is ongoing, producers heard during the same meeting that elected Préjet.
It’s an issue that Préjet expects will take up a significant amount of his time.
“If we talk about the most immediate thing right now, it would be the pricing with the hogs in Manitoba and in Western Canada in general,” he said. “There’s a lot of work being at that level right now to find a happy medium on what the producers need to get paid and what the processers are willing to pay in Western Canada.”
Other files, like animal health and trade, are more perennial. As well as threats such as porcine epidemic diarrhea — something Manitoba’s pork industry has waged war against since 2017’s major outbreak — the pork council is one of many groups working to keep out foreign animal disease, such as the African swine fever that has decimated the pork sector in many Asian countries.
Préjet noted the controversial Bill 62 and 63, currently proposed by the Manitoba government. The bills have been criticized by animal rights groups, that argue that the bills would limit protest and documentation of animal abuse.
Préjet, however, said it would “be nice to see” the bills pass. The industry has argued that proposed changes, particularly those that would make it illegal to enter a biosecurity zone without permission, would help bolster disease prevention and animal safety.
Cross-value chain collaboration, including ongoing talks with the province on things like business risk management, is also on his priority list in the new role, he said.
“I think that’s going to be very important,” he said. “We can’t just live in a bubble here.”