It’s not like I have never been in a hog barn before, and yet this time as I enter the door, it’s very different. Gone are the familiar squeals of someone waiting to be fed. It’s silent. Deathly silent as a matter of fact. I can hear the melting snow dripping off the eaves and splashing when it hits the ground outside. I’ve never heard that in our barn before. There were pigs in the pens before it was even completed. I’ve never seen it empty before.
My grandfather moved here in 1929, shortly after my father was born. As a young farmer typical of the time it didn’t take him long to stock the place with cows, horses, chickens, and of course, pigs. A necessary source of food for his own family and the neighbours, pigs were known as the “mortgage lifters.” With a quick turnover and big litters, they have long been regarded as the cash flow for mixed family farms.
Like many families of the time, they struggled and met the obstacles of running a farm head on. When my father took over operations in the early 1950s, the writing was already on the wall for the subsistence practices of the past. Summerfallow was giving way to continuous cropping, woodlots were being bulldozed to grow more grain, and slaughterhouse demand was necessitating more intensive livestock production methods.
My father began his first confinement finishing barn in 1966, and with several renovations, it was the same one in use until this year. A fire in an older sow barn in the early 70s forced us to construct a farrowing barn, which was soon followed by a dry sow barn to hold the breeding stock. By 1974, our pigs were no longer running outside or wallowing in the mud. We had stepped up to a farrow-to-finish total confinement unit with slatted concrete floors.
I returned to the farm in 1981, and even though I never really considered myself to be an “animal” person, feeding the pigs morning and night became part of my daily routine. While interest rates soared and taxed our incomes, hogs continued to play an important role in our partnership. By the mid ’80s, prices were over $1 a pound, yielding $200 market hogs at a time when the break-even points were hovering close to the $100 mark.
The cure for high prices is, of course high prices, and by the 1990s market fluctuations were causing some serious downturns. Rationalization of the slaughter facilities meant that farmers had fewer choices in where to market, and pressure mounted to find new ways to stabilize income for big operations that carried big risks.
The turn of this century marked a significant change for pork marketing in this province. Manitoba Pork’s single-desk selling was eliminated so large companies could contract directly with the producer. Early contract offerings began at 2,000 hogs per year and promised a scant $20 net profit per hog. For anyone who could not meet those requirements, contracts were not an option. Low margins meant big units would have to think bigger to maximize returns.
As the large processors lined up contract barns, demand for off-contract production shrivelled. Studies have shown that in the following 10 years, producers selling off contract have seen an average net return of $0. The hundreds of producers who have left this industry didn’t need a study to tell them it was no longer profitable; they voted with their feet.
In our own case, we really didn’t lose money. Growing our own feed, utilizing buildings with no outstanding debt and holding costs to a minimum kept us from bleeding red ink. We were simply running out of people outside of the corporate model to work with. Truckers who can assemble full loads of independently produced animals are getting few and far between. Local feed mills are closing, purebred breeders are disappearing and the threat of increased costs for manure management loom on the horizon.
Hog barns are disappearing in our area and the people who worked in them or for them will have to find other jobs. Losing feed mills and other employers in a small town is a serious blow. Finding new jobs to replace them isn’t easy, and for some it will mean leaving. Local businesses that flourished supplying hog barns, have now been replaced by “vertical integration” or direct purchasing between the corporate interest and the contract operator.
For me, those empty barns have become a grim reminder of what happens to a group of producers who lose their bargaining position in the marketplace.
In the 10 years since the loss of single-desk selling, we have gone from a producer monopoly to a corporately controlled one, and that has not bode well for the family farm. The hog that was once known as a “mortgage lifter” is now shunned by the banking community.
As we have plummeted into a social exercise in finding the cheapest possible source of pork, we have lost sight of the market, the product, and more importantly, the people with the expertise to feed us.
There have been pigs in our yard since 1930, and at the end of three generations of pork production, I still see the human cost as the highest loss of all.
Les McEwan farms
Thehundredsofproducerswhohaveleftthis industrydidn’tneedastudytotellthemitwas nolongerprofitable;theyvotedwiththeirfeet.