OTTAWA — A 30-year-old jade plant sits in the window of Martin Rice’s office at the Canadian Pork Council.
It twists and turns and bends its branches in all directions as it reaches for the sun. Rice brought that plant with him when he started at the pork council.
It may be symbolic of his 29 year career, which draws to a close April 29.
Born and raised in the rural area of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, he was not really a farm boy but was interested in agriculture.
He eventually earned a bachelor degree in economics and got a master’s of science in agricultural economics from Guelph University in 1978.
His first job was at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture as an economist, where he worked on dairy, eggs, pork and grain issues.
“It was an excellent position to learn the agriculture economy, the structure, the regional variations,” he said.
He joined the pork council in 1987 as executive secretary and later became executive director.
The job took him to every continent and placed him in the centre of agricultural crises and triumphs for the Canadian pork industry.
“I’ve had a job that has been extremely enjoyable,” he said.
His long career has been one of constant change.
He has seen the rise and fall of marketing boards, faced off against the United States in trade challenges, watched exports soar and mourned when mass numbers of producers decided to leave the industry.
Provincial pork marketing boards were the norm when he started with the council. Many farmers favoured collective sales for their commodities at the time.
However, specialization and consolidation were taking over, and producer associations were sometimes late in realizing what was happening in the country.
“We weren’t perhaps always aware how the collective marketing approach was less in the total interests of the industry,” he said.
“When I started there were probably 30,000 hog farms, which would be farms with one or more pigs. The average marketings were a couple hundred,” he said.
Today, there are about 7,000 producers with a mixture of large corporations with many employees and family run operations.
Producers had learned how to manage the four year hog cycle, but volatility has now taken over the commodity markets.
“That was back when we had a true North American market. We didn’t export much, we didn’t import much in North America,” he said
“We lived in our own little North American cocoon. Now there are many exchange rates, H1N1 type things and world economic collapse will all have a huge impact on the industry and it prevents the industry from getting back into a nice predictable cycle. It is just shock after shock.”
Those shocks were often too much to bear.
The pork sector eventually worked with government on two programs to get rid of sows and if necessary, help producers leave the business.
“You never think you as an association will be involved in getting people out of your business,” he said.
“It was seen as something that might help some producers that were hanging in because they could not walk away, and this was something that helped them close the doors.”
Most were gone permanently.
“Unfortunately, some of them were young farmers who just couldn’t get a break or earn enough revenue to keep them going,” he said.
The American industry is ex-panding, but Canada is not.
“The Canadian hog industry has a little ways to go before it is in a strong equity position again. There is a lot of debt,” he said.
Venturing into the international marketplace may have saved the survivors’ bacon.
Canada Pork International was created in 1991, and new free trade agreements have helped the industry export 75 percent of its production to 90 to 110 countries.
“As we have seen these markets increase, we have been able to get much more value for cuts like offals,” he said.
“There is a return that is much greater in Asia than we could ever hope for here, so it has added a lot of value to the carcass.”
Canada is still selling a commodity product, but it is able to promote quality, high food safety standards and a willingness to give individual customers what they want.
When a growing number of customers rejected ractopamine in hog feed, the response was to stop using it.
Success can also breed unexpected consequences.
Canada fought a trade battle from 1985-99 over U.S. countervailing duties on live pig imports from Canada. It cost the industry $5 to $10 million in duties and legal fees.
Another countervail and antidumping case ended in 2005. American producers claimed live Canadian hogs were sold into the United States at prices below their cost of production because of un-fair subsidies. Canada won, but it was a costly battle.
On the countervail’s heels came American country-of-origin labelling legislation, which forced retailers to indicate where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. A challenge before the World Trade Organization ruled in Canada’s favour, but it was another lengthy, costly war.
Pork producers joined the beef industry in the fight but did not contribute an equal amount in legal fees, time and travel.
“Kudos to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association for leading an incredible effort over the years to persuade the government of Canada to take on a WTO case,” Rice said.
Fair trade is still a priority, and trade deals with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is expected to widen doors.
“We never export as much to Europe as we do to Japan or the U.S., but we need these many, additional markets. Europe offers a very good ham price,” he said.
Europe’s demanding animal welfare standards have also been influential.
The first code of practice for the humane handling of pigs was developed when Rice started working at the council. It has evolved into an industry supported initiative, although he fears animal agriculture is not driving the agenda.
“Producers are starting to look for reasons as to why they are doing so much,” he said.
“A lot of it is for markets that is not really giving them an extra dollar a hog.”
He said ways are needed to compensate producers for the extra workload, even as scrutiny increases.
It means producers and processors will have to co-operate on a wide range of issues, including trade, on-farm quality assurance, animal welfare, government lobbying and defending the use of products such as ractopamine and antimicrobials.
He said his work with the council provided pleasant benefits. The pork business offered a rich social life as he met producers from across the country and travelled the world. There are lasting friendships, and he is proud to be part of the industry’s culture.
He and his wife, Claudette, have three children. Grandchildren are now part of the equation and he wants time for family.
He predicts good times ahead. The Canadian dollar will likely stay low, and the industry is competitive.
“I think there will be a good four or five years ahead of us,” he said.