Diversification keeps family seeing rainbows

Despite low prices and Manitoba government hog sector regulations, the Penner family has a positive attitude

ARGYLE, Man. — During a winter in Manitoba’s Interlake, there are days when eye and ear protection is essential. Jan. 5 was one of those days.

Sunglasses were needed because the sky was clear and the sun gleamed off snow-covered fields, making it impossible to look to the south. A tuque was also necessary because the air temperature was -25 C, cold enough to freeze the hardiest of ears.

There are two ways to view such a day: one, focus on the brightness and the clean, refreshing air. Two, go on the internet and look for warm weather vacation deals.

Cal Penner definitely falls into the first category. He was smiling, cheerful and didn’t mention the frigid weather while greeting a visitor to his home.

He and his wife, Cathy, draw on that same positive outlook when it comes to their farm. The glasses in their house are half-full.

“We never focused on the negative part,” Cal said. “We just focused on what it took to make it work.”

The Penners run a mixed farm near Argyle, Man., with 1,200 acres of grain land and a 550 sow farrow-to-finish operation.

Cal’s parents, Vern and Martha, moved to the area from Steinbach in 1970.

Cal grew up on the farm and knew at an early age that he wanted to be a producer. After graduating from high school in Stonewall, Man., Cal earned an agriculture diploma from the University of Manitoba, farmed with his dad and eventually took over the operation.

But Vern, who helped found Keystone Agricultural Producers and is now in his late 70s, is still involved.

“He comes out every day to the shop. Works and tinkers,” Cal said.

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Cathy grew up on an acreage near Stonewall and met Cal when she was in Grade 12. She is also active on the farm, caring for the piglets and managing the books for the operation.

The Penners are a rarity in Manitoba because family-run hog farms have nearly disappeared. There are about 50 independent hog farmers in Manitoba, a province that had hundreds of independent producers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Now two companies, Maple Leaf Foods and Hylife, along with Hutterite colonies, operate the majority of hog barns.

Low prices and costly government regulations pushed most independents out of business. The Penners persisted but there were times when they thought about quitting.

“Absolutely. The period from 2007 to 2013 was pretty rough for the Canadian hog industry,” said Cal.

The Penners’ positive outlook helped them persevere but returns from grain production also made a difference.

“We think our strength is being diversified,” Cal said, adding they apply hog manure to 700 acres of cropland, which dramatically reduces the fertilizer bill.

Another critical factor is marketing. Cal uses hog futures, feedgrain futures, forward contracting and other marketing tools to reduce price risk in pig production.

“At the very least, you can make it break even,” Cathy said.

Off the farm, Cal has been in-volved in the hog industry for two decades.

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He now sits on the board for the Manitoba Pork Council and volunteered his time at Hams, a marketing service for pork producers.

The Penners’ commitment to agriculture was recognized in 2016, when the Red River Exhibition Association recognized them as the farm family of the year.

Cal also developed an interest in flying and earned his pilot licence and flew at the nearby airport in St. Andrew’s for many years. They also attended many air shows.

His passion made an impact on their 19-year-old daughter, Nikki.

She works for WestJet in Winnipeg and plans to become a pilot. She already has a pilot’s licence but hasn’t decided if she will enter the military to become a commercial pilot or take training through a flying school.

Cal and Cathy’s son, Eric, is still in high school and hasn’t settled on a career.

When asked if they would ever take over the family farm, Eric and Nikki shrugged and smiled.

“I think I’ll work here (on the farm) for a year and maybe two after high school and figure things out. (But) as it sits right now, not really,” said Eric.

If his kids don’t want to farm, it’s not an issue for Cal.

“Whether (the farm) carries on for a third or fourth generation, that doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “What’s important is whatever direction they go … to give it a 110 percent.”

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