Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines - August 2010

Our writer Don Stoneman set out to separate fact from fiction for this month’s cover story (see page 6) about producing Certified Humane pork for Quebec packer Viande duBreton.

He found a producer who was leaving the program to produce commodity pork for the conventional marketplace, but didn’t want to be identified. The fear of repercussions after speaking out is typical of many situations where producers are under contract.

The balance of power between producers and processors is perceived to have changed following the most recent announcement by Agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell that overturned a Farm Products Appeal Tribunal ruling that would have retained Ontario Pork’s single desk powers.

 There is more uncertainty in the pork market as far as contracts are concerned than ever before. One producer, who had formerly been forthcoming with Better Pork, said: “There are only five or six places where we can market our hogs. We can’t afford to tick anyone off.”

The duBreton program is being driven by retailers. In this case, the major retailer, Whole Foods, is run by a vegan and the program that is being used to certify meat is directed by the principles of an odd match of animal rights and welfare groups.

A release for the Animal Compassion Foundation from 2005 states: “To help meat producers achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while still maintaining economic viability, the Foundation will . . . search the planet for innovative ranchers and farmers who raise their animals with the well-being of the animal rather than producer productivity as the primary goal.”  BP


Behind the Lines - June 2010

One constant in our constantly changing industry is the need for factual and credible information. With each issue, we try to meet that need. Take PRRS for example, which has had a profound impact on profitability. Our cover story on page 6 by Kate Procter describes a new Ontario database aimed at eradication and in his regular column on page 26. veterinary pathologist Ernest Sanford provides a global perspective on the same topic.

For many years, our readers have come to depend on the solid information provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ swine team in their Pork News & Views section. Beginning with this issue, we are proud to include The Marketing Report which will be published in our June, August, December and February issues.

This new feature is a collaborative effort with Ontario Pork in conjunction with the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus.

The Marketing Report is taken from the Quarterly Ontario Pig Inventory Report and the Hog Marketing Newsletter that Ridgetown prepares. The Ontario Pig Inventory Report is modelled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hogs and Pigs Report with respect to inventory categories and production intentions.

Production information includes: inventory of all pigs, breeding stock and market hogs. You will also learn about litter rate, as well as farrowing and marketing intentions.

Included in the marketing data are: market hog prices, Ontario hog marketings, export data, pig production distribution, profitability indicators for producers and processors and U.S. pig inventory. BP


Behind the Lines - April 2010

There’s strength in numbers and that’s why Ontario Pork has joined with other troubled farm commodities in lobbying the Ontario government for financial help through the Ontario Agriculture Sustainability Coalition. For this month’s cover story, writer Don Stoneman looked at that lobby through the eyes of a couple of politically active pork producers from Perth County who look not so much to Queen’s Park but to Quebec’s agricultural model for a solution. That story starts on page 6.

The producers’ plan, developed at the grass roots level, includes short term financial assistance, a risk management program, a cost of production floor price, a matching of production to slaughter capacity, and a round table with a neutral chair.

It’s a big reach. Some may characterize it as a dream list. But the industry needs some big solutions. Perhaps more than anything else, it requires governments to realize that, in these times, no neglect can be viewed as benign.

The prolonged crisis in the province’s pork industry is matched only by government inaction. As Ontario Pork director Steve Illick points out in the cover story, competitors can raise capital to survive this downturn in ways that small producers can hardly imagine.

At the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministerial meeting, held in Toronto in February, agriculture ministers from across Canada agreed to consult some more with farmers and then talk about a new Business Risk Management Strategy at their next meeting in July.

Some astute observers point out this is the third year in a row they have promised to examine the crisis in agriculture. BP


Behind the Lines - February 2010

The inspiration for this month’s story came from our visit to Timiskaming District last September. We had just sent our October issue off to press, with a cover story about the challenges of new power charges on today’s modern electricity hungry farms. When large-scale farm operator Norm Koch told us he was using a diesel generator to power his grain storage and dryer system rather than depend upon the grid, it underlined the concerns that farmers have about the perceived instability in regulated hydro electric prices.

We realized that we had missed something.

We hadn’t talked to the farmers who were concerned about costs associated with hooking up to the grid and who were willing to do something about it on their own terms.

Behind the Lines - February 2010

This issue’s cover story focuses on producers who want to stay in pork farming by re-financing and, in particular, reports their concerns about the federal government’s Hog Industry Loan Loss Reserve Program (HILLRP), announced last October.

Anecdotal reports point to a slow uptake of this program, which is supposed to backstop lenders who provide credit to risky accounts. One measure of movement is the rate of the payback of emergency advances from ACC Farmers Financial, which had channelled emergency advance payments to pork producers. Those advances must be paid back by producers enrolling in the HILLRP.

Behind the Lines - October 2009

For those of us with a long history in the pork business, calls for supply management in times of crisis are nothing new. When the chatter began last spring, a producer told one of our writers it was a sign that the market was at the bottom. That was well before prices fell by another 15 to 18 cents per kilogram to less than a dollar in mid-summer.

Although it probably wouldn’t be much help to our ailing industry, it might be an interesting exercise for an economics class to calculate whether pork producers and Canadian taxpayers would be better or worse off now if producers had opted for supply management when the last big push was on back in the early 1980s.

When things are broken at home, it’s only natural to look for greener pastures elsewhere and Quebec often comes to mind when the Ontario industry is hurting. Clearly, the Quebec pork processing sector is healthier than ours. And, if the numbers in the previous sow buyout program are any indication, Quebec producers were faring better than their Ontario counterparts then too.

In our April cover story, however, reporter Suzanne Deutsch found that ASRA, the Quebec hog stabilization program, had a $780 million deficit and that farmers in that province had the highest debt load in Canada. Quebec pork industry officials predict many more producers there will take advantage of the recently-announced buyout to exit the industry this time, so the relative impact of the current crisis on Quebec producers remains to be seen.

Since the 1980s, there have been too many pork industry crises and several of them have been declared the “worst ever.” We are, however, now clearly in uncharted waters. No one can find a precedent for the current crisis of low prices and high feed costs, coupled with declining consumption. An exodus of producers threatens the viability of packers here. Beginning on page 6, field editor Mary Baxter outlines the options producers are considering.

One of the issues that producers here face is the continued and unfair connection made between H1N1 flu and the swine industry, particularly by our national media. The damage is well documented. In mid-August a Tri-National Agricultural Accord signed by ministers of agriculture in Mexico, Canada and the United States requested that media use the clinical term H1N1 when referring to the disease and a possible pandemic because of a public misconception about the ‘swine flu’ designation.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, subsidized by taxpayers and sometimes accused of an anti-business stance, refuses to change its policy of using the “swine flu” term. BP 


Behind the Lines - August 2009

“The hits just keep on coming” isn’t just a line from a top 40 radio station disc jockey. It’s a fact of life for pork producers in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada as H1N1, misnamed as “swine flu,” strikes yet another body blow to an industry dazed and stumbling after battles with prices ravaged by shifts in the Canadian dollar exchange rate, circovirus and PRRS, skyrocketing feed prices and country-of-origin labelling in the United States.

We don’t have to tell you that prices went backwards this spring when the H1N1 crisis hit and some trading nations closed their borders to North American pork. Producers don’t have a lot of options.

One of the few glimmers of light is advances into European markets gained by Quebec packer Les Viandes du Breton Inc, which buys hogs out of Ontario for its Humane Pork program. Our story detailing their progress starts on page 15.

Not so positive is the losing battle the pork industry is fighting with the media over the popular misnaming of the H1N1 virus, which kills some of its human victims and has been named a moderate risk of pandemic world-wide. We write about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s doubletalk on this issue in our “Beyond the Barn” feature.

And columnist Larry Martin, a former University of Guelph agricultural economics professor, puts a dollar value to the damage. His “Second Look” column can be found on page 46.

Pork producers are looking at a lot of different options as they try to survive this series of crises. One of them is shrinking production to meet demand. Ridgetown-based agricultural economist Ken McEwan says it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective. Ontario is close to having production of pigs in line with slaughter capacity, but is still a long way away from being in line with consumption.

Last year, Ontario imported 128,000 tonnes of pork, and exported 149,000 tonnes.

Producers shipped 806,000 feeder pigs and 892,000 market hogs. Critical mass, economies of scale and technology transfer all come into play when pork production falls to domestic consumption levels only.

“There are many implications,” McEwan says. To withdraw that much from the pork industry “has ripple effects through rural Ontario.” Still, he adds, “our strength is our domestic marketplace. Assuming our costs and efficiencies are similar to other regions we should be able to be there" in a competitive position when things turn around – if anyone is left.


Behind The Lines - Better Pork June 2009

As a commentator in the Globe and Mail recently put it, the hog industry in Canada “continues to stagger from crisis to conflict.”

Ontario’s industry certainly had both in April and early May. The “swine flu crisis” triggered market speculation and unnecessary trade actions, stripping a reported $30 a hog in just three days from the already low value of pigs on June contracts.

At this writing, pork industry leaders are readying an appeal to governments for funding to support them through this crisis. The same reasoning is behind this as with the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy crisis that struck the beef industry in 2003 and which also received funding.

In the Mexican town of La Gloria, downwind from a big Smithfield pig barn, it turns out that photogenic five-year-old Edgar Hernandez was not “patient zero” in the swine flu crisis. More than 1,000 townsfolk had similar symptoms in the weeks before, and in fact a similar sickness had been noted in another region of the country weeks before that.

While the swine flu alert was being sounded, a new round of conflict appeared in the making. A University of Guelph-Ministry of Environment sampling of water on Lake Huron appeared, at first glance, to implicate livestock agriculture as the major source of E. coli bacteria found in the lake and on popular beaches, with the contribution from human sources being virtually negligible.

But, as with the Mexican town of La Gloria, all is not as it first seems. Better Pork staff asked questions and found the study limited and its implications questionable. The water samples implicating agriculture as a polluter were taken from an area with lots of farms, few people and no municipal sewage systems. Furthermore, the researchers pointed out that the DNA sampling had a high margin of error. It’s hard to say what will become of this study. For continued coverage, watch our website:

While most aspects of the flu epidemic were moving too fast to be covered in a magazine, on page 40 of this issue we do offer you an important article for pork producers, written by Beth Young and Cate Dewey entitled: “What you should know about swine flu.”

Batch farrowing has been around for a long time and, even if you are one of the many who have been using this technique, you may learn a thing or two from our cover story by Kate Procter which begins on page 6. And, finally, if you missed this year’s version of the always information-packed London Swine conference, Procter has produced an article drawn in part from a presentation there on managing today’s hyper-prolific sows. 


Behind the Lines - April 2009

Quebec’s ASRA (Assurance Stabilisation du Revenu Agricole) has long been the envy of pork producers in Ontario and elsewhere.

For various reasons, language being one and the united public front put forward by the Union des Producteurs Agricole another; parts of the program have been a mystery for most Ontario Producers. ASRA is also coming under increasing attack within Quebec because it’s long been considered too rich for the government to continue supporting.

This past winter The Fraser Institute, a right wing think tank based in British Columbia, reported that Quebec producers were guaranteed $163.77 for a hog that brought less than $120 in the marketplace in 2008, and another program gave $182 million to the piglet-producing industry. Over two years, subsidies were estimated to total more than $1.1 billion.

Talking about billions of dollars, however, still doesn’t put a face on the pork producing situation in Quebec. That’s something our writer Suzanne Deutsch has managed nicely. Her story, beginning on page 6, personalizes the challenges facing Quebec’s pork producers, many of who express disillusionment because they are as indebted as any farmers in Canada, in spite of the rich payouts from ASRA.

As we were going to press, we learned that Quebec is making some changes that may be unprecedented. Producers there will be partnering with processors to fund development of new pork products. We will have more on that as details become available.

Quebec’s pork board, La Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec says the province has 3,900 producers producing 7.5 million pigs. In contrast, Ontario Pork’s website says we have 2,800 producers, producing about 5.3 million hogs. It’s been a while since Ontario’s industry was larger than Quebec’s.

It’s hard to overlook the irony that Ontario’s far older single desk selling capability is being dismantled at the same time as Quebec is proudly celebrating the 20th anniversary of its single desk system.

As we went to press, the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal granted producers Rein Minnema, Fields Farms Ltd., Huron County Pork Producers Association and Ontario Pork Districts 10, 11 and 12 status to appeal the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission ruling last October taking away Ontario Pork’s long standing powers as a single desk agency.

You can stay up to date on the future of Ontario Pork at

One thing producers in both Quebec and Ontario have in common is a general reliance on corn and soybean based rations. In fact Janice Murphy’s column on page 33 in this issue shows just how far we’ve come with our feeding programs in the past century. Can you believe that a century ago soybeans were used for green manure and were so rare that they weren’t included in the 1910 U.S. crop census?


Behind the Lines - February 2009

It’s almost a cliché to say that change drives the pork industry. It’s in the spirit of change, however, that after nearly a decade with familiar topics and regular sections, this issue of Better Pork brings you some new features.

A lot has changed with swine genetics since we launched Better Pork. Serge Pommier, director of technical operations for PIC in Canada, has stepped up to the plate by contributing to what we hope will be an ongoing occasional feature that will keep us abreast of a critical pillar of efficient pork production. In this issue, Pommier explores the role genetic markers play in determining production efficiencies ranging from resistance to PRRS to carcass quality.

“Beyond the Barn” is another of the changes we introduce with this issue. Edited by second-generation pork producer and long-time agricultural journalist Kate Procter, the new feature is a sometimes whimsical, sometimes irreverent look at the strange or illogical things we come across when we look beyond our production systems and work day. Kate also wrote this month’s cover story on survival strategies for dealing with PRRS.

Our industry is very focused on the bottom line and so the things we write about in Better Pork naturally enough tend to deal in a logical manner with the challenges you face in running your business. Most production decisions in the barn are based on reason: if you vaccinate against a particular disease, for example, you expect to reduce or eliminate that disease challenge. As a producer, you test a new practice against an old one and adopt the practice which works better in terms of cost and productivity.

In general, the barn is a place that makes sense. But have you ever noticed how many things which happen beyond the barn seem to defy logic? Recent developments with pork marketing spring to mind. The Farm Products Marketing Commission caught many industry observers off guard when it stripped Ontario Pork of its single-desk powers and ordered the industry to adopt and adapt to this profound change in short order. The lack of debate among producers on this important issue and subsequent appeals of the Commission’s decision have left us with more questions than answers.

Marketing can’t be described as whimsical. Even the most cynical among us must treat it with the utmost respect. In our “Second Look” column this month, former University of Guelph ag economist Larry Martin joins our new group of contributors to the back page. He argues that, instead of enduring the ongoing boom and bust cycle, producers and processors could share in the rewards.

Covering changes like those happening with pork marketing in Ontario right now is a challenge. Events are unfolding quickly and there is a lack of clear information. The bad news is that magazine production is simply too slow to deal with breaking news. Producers have another option, however. Staying up to date with pork marketing developments as they happen is now as simple as visiting our website:

If you click on our website now, you’ll find stories on the Commission’s decision, the appeals which have followed and ongoing developments as they happen. This is information that producers deserve to have to make decisions.