Brandon plant hogtied by regulations

Plant work force down by 400 | Manager blames provincial ban on hog barns, federal restrictions on foreign workers

BRANDON — The Maple Leaf hog slaughter plant here has enough workers to kill all the pigs it can bring in — for now.

But that’s only because the Manitoba government hog barn moratorium is slowly reducing hog supplies so fewer workers are needed.

“We’ve slowed our p.m. shift down,” said Morgan Curran-Blaney, the manager of the Brandon plant. “Our afternoon shift runs at half speed.”

Curran-Blaney, who spoke at Keystone Agricultural Producers’ general council meeting July 10, painted a picture of a state-of-the-art plant crippled by the provincial hog barn moratorium and threatened by changes to federal temporary foreign worker rules. The provincial moratorium is forcing the plant to run well below capacity, while federal restrictions on temporary foreign workers might prevent it getting back up to speed in the future.

“We need 20,000 (more) hogs a week,” said Curran-Blaney. That would bring the plant to peak efficiency, he said.

Those pigs are missing because the moratorium prevents farmers from building new barns. If an old barn closes or a farm fails, a new one can’t be built to replace its production. Instead of a weekly hog slaughter of 90,000 head or more, the plant is down to 65,000-70,000.

That has caused it to cut its workforce to 1,900 from 2,300, but not through layoffs. Every month the plant loses about 40 staff, so it hasn’t filled vacancies and has scaled back production, Curran-Blaney said.

But if the province ever lifts the moratorium and farmers are able to increase production to meet the plant’s needs, Maple Leaf might not be able to find enough workers.

Curran-Blaney said on average only 12 of the 40 vacancies that appear per month are filled by Canadian workers. The rest are foreign. If federal restrictions make it impossible to maintain or increase the workforce, the plant will be in a squeeze.

Brandon Conservative member of Parliament Larry Maguire said in an interview at the meeting that the government is aware of Maple Leaf’s concerns, but believes the plant will be able to operate within the tightened restrictions in the temporary worker program.

“These are the rules we had to come up with … because abuse was widespread,” said Maguire.

“At least in those areas, in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, we can continue to apply for temporary foreign workers.”

Manitoba Pork Council general manager Andrew Dickson said he thinks the Canadian hog industry is losing competitiveness because of restrictions on packers and farmers that U.S. farmers don’t face. The additional costs and constraints make it hard to compete.

“I’m not sure how long some of our processing capacity in Canada can last at this sort of rate,” said Dickson.

And he sounded frustrated by trying to deal with the Manitoba government’s hog barn moratorium, which only allows a new hog barn to be built if a million dollar anaerobic manure digester is installed — something Dickson said no farmer can reasonably afford.

The same control of phosphorus and other manure elements can be achieved with simple, two-stage lagoons, but the provincial government won’t allow that.

“You can’t get this point through to an urban government,” said Dickson.

“They don’t get it.”

KAP vice-president Dan Mazier said the hog barn moratorium makes no sense if the government wants the industry to survive.

“There’s no ability for producers in this province to renew themselves,” said Mazier.

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