As COVID-19 vaccines make their way into food processing plants, it marks a long year for many farmers and other agricultural businesses that have been scrambling to survive and adapt to the changes in public health regulations. Hog farmers and pork producers are one sector of the agricultural industry that faced many challenges before the pandemic. Pig Progress, a website publishing information on the hog industry, reports that producers were expected to lose $30-50 per hog in 2020, costing farmers across the country $675 million. But both large-scale and smaller hog operations have adapted to obstacles, including price drops for hog products being shipped internationally and a lack of workers — especially foreign workers.
Pork sector adapting to survive the pandemic
For local hog producers and farmers, following public health guidelines is vital. Producers and farms need available workers and team members to meet demand. Plus, a lack of workers or asking employees to work longer hours can lead to unsafe conditions for workers and to the potential for more workplace accidents.
Andrew Dickson, former General Manager of Manitoba Pork said that Manitoba’s pork industry has been able to adapt to the public health restrictions brought on by the pandemic. The producers in the province were facing different complications associated with the transportation of pork products to the United States, a trade and sales partner on which Canadian pork producers are dependent.
“The pork industry is a tale of success and a tale of challenges. On the one hand, our exports are doing well, all things considered,” said Dickson. “For example, our exports to China have doubled so we’ve done quite well in that regard. We’ve been able to hold up our exports essentially to the United States and Japan which are major markets for us. They’re a little bit off but nothing terrible.”
Mark Ferguson of Saskatchewan Pork said that hog farmers and producers in his province faced similar issues when the health restrictions were initially put in place, especially with oversupply of pork stock being held back in barns. The public health restrictions have affected the operations of the production plants in the United States which created a chain reaction of hog producers — and the barns that house these pigs — in Canada being backed up.
“The North American market is basically integrated, we ship hogs across the border daily from Western Canada, particularly feeder pigs, we ship them down to the [United States],” said Ferguson. “So, when they had their big disruption in their processing facilities that greatly impacted our feeder pig exporter, because you can’t fill up a barn with new Canadian feeder pigs if your previous stock hasn’t been moved out because the slaughter plant is not operating. What is going on in the U.S. every day affects us in Western Canada and across Canada as well.”
More demand for locally-sourced pork
While many regional and national hog farms and producers are getting support in international markets, some smaller-scale businesses and producers are not able to remain competitive. Margie Lamb, chair of Pork Nova Scotia, said that Nova Scotia once had over 200 commercial-sized farms, but the industry has changed over the years. That number dropped to just six farms, including the one owned by Lamb and her late husband.
Lamb encourages locals to demand more locally-owned and produced pork in larger chain stores and restaurants: “Citizens, you have the voice, your money talks. Say ‘I want local, I want to know who my farmer is.’ It’s your voice, your personal voice makes that a difference.”
Ferguson and Dickson also echo these sentiments when asked what locals can do to support the Canadian pork industry. Canadians need to use their buying power to influence the market and the availability of locally produced pork.
Pork producers working to meet demand
COVID has brought new challenges for producers in this sector to keep up with demand, especially when there have been shortages of workers in production plants. In Western Canada, this shortage of workers also led to slowed production and a shortage of pigs. As a result of this shortage, hogs from Ontario and Quebec were being shipped to processing plants in Western Canada. Quebec and Ontario were producing pigs at such a high volume due to COVID outbreaks in production plants that many had to either shutdown or cut back production.
While pork production plants and farmers in the Western provinces are surviving the pandemic, many others were struggling to meet the demand even before COVID-19. In Maritime provinces like Nova Scotia, the shortage of pork production plants in the province adds to the challenges that many pig farmers in the province currently face. Lamb talked about the difficulties some farmers in her province is facing, problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“One gentleman has been in the business since the 1950s and his farm is closing this month because of the challenges,” said Lamb.
She added that changes in provincial infrastructure would be a massive help to large and small-scale farmers and producers in Nova Scotia who have worked hard to maintain their businesses. She added that it is not enough to simply partner with a larger business.
“We have tried to work with the government,” said Lamb. “We want some infrastructure put in so that we can have a small federal abattoir so we would be able to sell more directly into some of the markets that we can’t even access in this province. Food security is huge. And so, for us in this region, even in the maritime region, it’s infrastructure that needs to be there and supported.”
Adapting to fewer essential temporary foreign workers
Temporary foreign worker programs have been facing major issues because public health restrictions have resulted in border closures. According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, temporary foreign workers made up 20% of Canada’s agricultural workforce, with 5.3% working in hog production. Hog farmers depend on foreign workers and foreign workers depend on these government programs. As outlined by Statistics Canada: “In the context of COVID-19, border restrictions are heightening vulnerabilities related to accessing this workforce and could put Canada’s domestic food production, especially horticulture crops, at risk.”
Learning to adapt to these changes has also highlighted how the agricultural industry is showing its resilience. Canadian hog farmers and pork producers will continue to find ways to adapt to the challenges to ensure they can continue to put food on Canadians’ tables.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.