Brandon’s Maple Leaf plant gets under way

Maple Leaf invited some of Brandon’s top brass and a swarm of media to an April 20 ceremony to officially break ground on its new $112 million pork plant going up here.

Organizers hoped the event stopped rumors swirling around the industry that the project might never get off the ground.

Describing it as the biggest and best, fastest and most efficient pork plant in the world, Maple Leaf Foods’ president and chief executive officer Michael McCain called this one of the proudest days of his life.

“I’m thrilled,” he told a crowded reception.

Concrete was scheduled to be poured April 27 on the 500,000-sq. foot site four kilometres east of the city. The company plans to move pigs down the lines by July 1999.

Maple Leaf plans to process 45,000 hogs a week on the first shift.

The day the plant fires up its assembly line and welcomes pigs inside is the same day hog prices in Manitoba will rise to equivalency with the United States price, McCain said.

“This is a significant capital investment for hog producers today and they will need the long-term contracts to reflect a U.S. equivalency price.”

That could translate to as high as $10 a hog, according to Rene Chabidon, marketing director at Manitoba Pork, the province’s dominant hog selling agency.

While prices fluctuate daily, the overall price difference between the Canadian and U.S. market for 1997 was $20 per 100 kilograms, he said.

It’s not yet clear if McCain’s promise to raise the Manitoba price to U.S. equivalency includes freight costs.

Either way, hog production in Manitoba will have to double by July 1999 to produce enough pigs to feed Maple Leaf’s Brandon plant, as well as the province’s four other processors – three of which recently announced plans to expand.

“I’m not sure we can double production by (July) 1999, but we’ll certainly be making inroads towards it,” Chabidon said.

Wait and see

A recent downturn in hog prices has put plans for some new hog operations on hold. “Whether or not the market turns around and gets that back on stream again is anybody’s guess,” Chabidon said.

While hog producers prepare to feed the plant with animals, union organizers prepare for negotiations on a collective agreement between the company and workers. Talks are expected to start next month.

Bernard Christophe, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said he’s confident negotiations will start on time and in good faith.

The deal must be approved by workers once the plant is ready to open, he said.

The union plans to use its agreement at Maple Leaf’s Winnipeg plant as a model, he said, where workers earn an average of $16-$17 an hour.

It’s not a bad wage, Christophe said, and should quell fears in Brandon that a migrant work force will invade the city and lead to slum neighborhoods and higher crime rates.

“I think this has been over played and I don’t believe that to be the case that all kinds of terrible things will happen to Brandon just because a transient workforce comes in,” he said.

“The wages and benefits will be reasonably good and going from our plant in Winnipeg, the turnover is not that great.”

McCain said $31 million has been committed to the project already.

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