by BETTER FARMING STAFF
Haskett was among roughly 180 participants in a day long meeting here that provided county pork producer leaders with details concerning Ontario Pork’s strategic direction and approaches to market renewal. At the pork board’s annual meeting in March, the board was directed to call a policy meeting later in the spring. The meeting, held Wednesday, was not open to media or general producers.
Of the 145 eligible to vote, Haskett was one of 70 per cent who voted in favour of a strategic plan allowing licensed agents to market hogs. Ontario Pork currently administers the sale of market-weight hogs in Ontario and producers of market-weight animals must pay for this regardless of whether or not they access the organization’s marketing services.
Although the idea of licensing agents drew broad support at the meeting Haskett knows it won’t be popular with everyone. There’s concern such changes will end up with history replaying itself: secretive pricing practices and drovers reaping large profits at the cost of producers. But times have changed, he says, pointing out with the Internet information is a lot more accessible than it used to be. He thinks change is needed “because there’s enough people that are uncertain about how much Ontario Pork markets” and at the same time would allow the provincial organization to earn its keep.
“It just brings in a competitive nature and a thriving business mentality rather than a complacency,” he says.
Martin Berkers, president of the Middlesex County Pork Producers, says he’s impressed with how the disparate group of producers at the table where he was sitting managed to reach consensus. “At the beginning some people thought we were on opposing ends but the more we talked actually the closer we came together (on the issue),” he says.
Berkers is a member of Progressive Pork Producers Co-operative (3P) which kills its members hogs at a plant in Kitchener. He says for large producers or a coop such as 3P, being able to act independently of the board “takes away a layer of bureaucracy.”
But for smaller producers, Berkers questions whether the ability to do your own selling will be of benefit.
“That’s why Ontario Pork still would be the preferred selling agent for Ontario and especially for the small producers,” he suggests.
Berkers says a good portion of those at the meeting favoured producers being the only ones licensed to sell outside of Ontario Pork. Yet how to undertake and administer such licensing generated divergent points of view: “Some tables said once you were approved as a selling agent you can do what you want” but for many price transparency was “the number one” issue. “So there has to be a reporting mechanism and Ontario Pork is in control of that.”
Then there were those who suggested that Ontario Pork’s marketing powers needed to become even more concentrated in the industry by administering the sale of piglet and weaner exports, an area that is currently outside of the board’s marketing responsibilities.
Haskett also observes opinions ranged from “one extreme to the next” with no consensus reached on who should be an agent. In Oxford, there’s a strong opinion that the licensing of agents should be opened up to anybody who has “access to delivering the best net dollars back to the farmer,” he says.
Both Haskett and Berkers emphasize there was strong support for Ontario Pork to maintain its role as a provincial voice for the industry and to finance related activities with a mandatory check-off fee. There was a feeling that all producer stakeholders should contribute to these costs, Haskett adds.
Both men also say there is concern that if producers don’t take the steps now to change their organization the Provincial Farm Products Marketing Commission will.
At a meeting last month the Commission heard from several producers about whether Ontario Pork’s structure needs a review. Another meeting is tentatively scheduled towards the end of July.
Former board chairman Larry Skinner, Listowel, found that the meeting generally set a bleak tone for the future of the industry. "There was no new news and certainly no good news" on the future of Maple Leaf's Burlington plant, which is scheduled to close. Skinner said Canada Pork Council chairman Clare Schegel's report that half of the pork sold in retail stores in Canada in 2008 might come from the United States "down right frightening." BF