Who is standing up for hog farmers?

I was delighted to hear that Manitoba’s film industry experienced its best year in a decade in 2016,  keeping 1,600 workers busy with $127 million in projects.

That’s a big deal here in Winnipeg, where I write. In my own neighbourhood you can often see strings of trucks lining side streets as one home or another is used as a movie set for a few days. When I’m driving my daughters around in our minivan and I see these trucks, I’ll call out: “Look girls, they’re making a movie.” And I’ll point out that it might even be one of the American Girl movies that they love, and which are often made here.

Lots of Winnipeggers are thrilled to see a busy movie industry here, and they should be. A busy industry means not just direct jobs and spending, but often many times as much spinoff spending and employment. That’s good for my city.

But why does nobody other than farmers ever seem to celebrate or cheer about the hog industry, the way people do with movies? After all, it is much, much, much more important than the movie industry, which is an undependable industry based on tax giveaways and a (temporarily?) low Canadian dollar. The hog industry is roughly ten times as important, with more than one billion dollars in revenues just from the pigs and meat themselves, and employing around 16,000 people.

The spinoffs are much greater. Not only is hog slaughter the biggest employer in Brandon (Manitoba’s second largest city), the cause of an economic boom in Neepawa (swelling the population with hundreds of immigrants settling there), and providing hundreds of processing jobs in Winnipeg, but across rural Manitoba people work in barns, trucking and many other businesses servicing the huge sector.

However, the industry is generally not the source of praise from anybody, but rather a frequent target for criticism. We saw this recently with a provincial government announcement that it was ending the hog barn moratorium that the previous provincial government enacted between 2007 and 2011, and will now allow farmers to construct or expand barns as long as they meet all the stringent environmental, construction and zoning requirements already in place. (For instance, hog barns can only operate if they are able to spread their manure on enough land to allow all of the phosphorus to be absorbed by crops, and manure can only be spread in a way that prevents runoff. If they don’t have enough spreading land, existing barns have to reduce production, and new barns won’t be approved.)

Rather than celebrate hopes that the end of the moratorium would allow the industry, one of the driving forces of the provincial economy, to expand again and strengthen the provincial economy, few positive public comments were made. The usual claims were made by some usual suspects, arguing that the hog industry pollutes Manitoba’s environment, even though there is virtually no evidence for this, with tough manure regulations preventing over-application of manure to fields and with most phosphorus going into rivers from cities, towns and commercial fertilizer used on crop farms. It’s just a claim that is made, usually without anything to back it up.

The only body offering a “Whew!” of relief was Manitoba Pork Council, which is the official industry organization for hog farmers. But most of their comments were defences against the accusations of critics, leaving most media accounts with an overhanging negative tone. It was really just more of the same for a huge sector of the provincial economy that never seems to get any respect.

This made me wonder, and this is the point of this post: where are the people who should be standing up for this huge part of our economy? Thousands of unionized employees work for the hog slaughter industry. Why do I never hear from the unions? The industry is a driving force – often the primary one – in a score of communities. Why do I hear little from mayors and chambers of commerce? Why is it only the hog farmers and their organization that is left to speak for what they do? They seem like a vested interest, so their voice alone is never going to be able to push back against the critics in a way that is convincing for the average citizen.

I’m making some calls about these questions this week, because it’s a mystery to me. Thousands and thousands of people rely upon the hog industry for jobs, economic sustainability and taxes, but nobody seems to be standing up and giving their two-cents about its value. Without that voice, the only voices being heard are often those of critics, and farmers trying to defend themselves.

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