Hog farmer leads fight for producer autonomy

ST. GREGOIRE, Que. – More than three decades ago, Laurent Pellerin and his wife Joanne put their student loans to good use.

They were in school in the city but wanted to farm, so they used the student loan money to help finance the start of a small hog operation on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Trois Rivieres.

It was 1972 and the young urban couple decided to take the plunge onto the land. The farm they bought was run down and overgrown, abandoned for more than 10 years. But it had a history – originally cleared and farmed by the Acadians who had been expelled from Atlantic Canada in 1755 by the British but returned in the following decades, some to this part of New France.

“There were a lot of abandoned farms in those days and there was a movement to return to the land,” said Pellerin, 55, and president of Quebec’s farm lobby l’Union des Producteurs Agricole for the past 11 years. He is a longtime vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and increasingly a national advocate for farmer organization and power.

He started to farm the year the UPA was founded, beginning Canada’s most effective farm lobby and leading to creation of the most farmer-friendly farm policy in any Canadian jurisdiction. While most provinces complain about the requirement that they pay 40 cents for every 60 cents paid by Ottawa in farm supports, Quebec routinely allocates $1.60 for every $1 spent by Ottawa in the province.

Pellerin, who has been involved in farm politics for the past quarter century, has been a key player in creating that farmer-friendly policy. Much of his adult life has been spent trying to create government policies and farmer organizations that give the producer some power and security.

His first encounters with the Quebec farm lobby did not impress him, but by the late 1970s he decided to find out for himself how the hog marketing board worked and why returns were low.

“My wife Joanne jokes that one day I decided to go to see how the hog board was working and I never came home.”

He became involved in local pork politics, then the Canadian Pork Council, Canada Pork International and along the way, UPA, the CFA and the international farm movement.

Now, the UPA presidency and his CFA involvement can take 240 days a year or more. His wife and two sons are there in his absence to run the operation that produces 5,000 hogs per year and the 225 head cow-calf operation.

The 1,500 acres they cultivate produce grains and oilseeds that the family converts into all the feed the farm needs.

“Making our own feed is the difference between profit and loss for us,” he said. “I tell my neighbours that if they buy all their inputs and try to make a living just by selling low value raw products, it is a prison.”

Pellerin’s farm lobbying duties keep him away from the farm most days but he bristles at questions about whether he can be considered a full-time farmer. He said he typically spends more than the 35 hours per week working on the farm in addition to his lobby work. Many urban workers consider a 35-hour week a full-time job.

Pellerin’s operation is mid-sized in the Quebec industry. It is profitable and established.

Life was not always so secure.

In 1972 when he wanted to start farming, Farm Credit Canada turned down his loan application, as it would again in 1976 when he wanted to expand. He forged ahead anyway, starting with 50 sows and helping pay for the investments needed by working with troubled teens in the school system.

Not long after he started to farm, Pellerin began to form the ideas that have driven his career in farm politics: producers of the food often receive the smallest share of the food dollar. They need to organize to extract more money from the system.

He became interested in co-operatives and the local farm union syndicate and once he began to rise in the Quebec hog farming hierarchy, he led a drive to create a provincial, hog marketing board based on Ontario’s.

Once he became involved in the UPA, he worked hard to extend its influence, strengthen its local unions and keep it well funded as the only authorized voice of Quebec farmers. Under provincial law, all farmers must pay dues to UPA even if they choose not to join.

The farm organization has revenues of $9 million from dues plus $6 million from checkoffs on product sales.

“Farmers need a strong voice and they need market power. Why shouldn’t farmers be organized?”

But as he looks across Canada, Pellerin laments that farmer organizations often are becoming weaker and single desk marketing boards often are losing their mandates.

A quarter century ago he first visited the Prairies.

“I was very impressed by how well organized they were.”

Now, the grain co-ops are gone and many of the marketing boards defunct.

“Farmers are weak,” he said. “You cannot negotiate a fair price from someone who is much stronger than you.”

It is a message the Quebec farm leader is increasingly taking across Canada.

“We are not asking for charity when we ask for a fair share. We are asking for our rights.”

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