Retiring pork council chair shows farm politics’ good side

George Matheson hasn’t been a typical Manitoba hog producer.

He isn’t from Steinbach or the rest of the south-of-Winnipeg hog belt.

He isn’t part of a corporate value chain or a contract producer, which also makes up much of the industry.

He isn’t a Hutterite, which is what most of the remaining independent producers are.

He operated a specialty grass-raised pork operation north of Winnipeg, one that operated mostly outside the commodity business that almost everybody else is inside.

Maybe that’s what’s made him a convincing and successful champion of the Manitoba hog business for the 10 years he has been Manitoba Pork Council chair, and from which he has now retired. He’s been far enough outside the mainstream that he can listen to its various and diverse members, players, components and interests and find unifying issues that can be championed and addressed in everybody’s interests.

He’s a great example of the sort of public servant that so many of our farm industries rely upon. These can be fractious industries, rent by political, ideological, selfish and historical divisions that often make any sort of a pan-industry approach or strategy seem fruitless.

Look at the western grain industry and the deep-seated divisions over the Canadian Wheat Board, some of which have still not been completely patched over.

But often under the surface of the heated disputes are a set of issues, and an underlying reality, which can be addressed, represented and improved.

We’ve seen a lot of that during the pandemic, when not just farmers but other elements of the industry as well as government regulators and politicians have risen above petty and comforting disputes to act in a way we are not used to seeing them act: with alacrity.

Much of the success of agriculture in surviving the first year of the pandemic comes from the “wartime” approach so many took when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. The sudden shock of the virus impact was quickly met by vigorous efforts of individuals, companies and governments to grapple with the new pressing reality.

As agricultural economists Richard Gray and Mohammad Toshizi say in an April 13 article in the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, “one could argue this was the invisible hand of the market operating effectively, but that would drastically understate the contribution of millions of Canadians who recognized their social responsibility and made uncompensated efforts to dutifully do what they could to address the crisis.

“Governments, from senior politicians to the public servants delivering vital services, recognized the crisis and put solutions ahead of their self-interest. Often collective action provided pragmatic actions to potential disputes up and down the supply chain, allowing the sector to continue to operate in a new reality.”

Some prairie farmers are frustrated when they look at the political weight Quebec farmers obviously have both inside their own province and nationally, especially in protecting supply management, and rue the divisions that so often make western Canadian agriculture an ideological war zone.

Perhaps that sort of Gallic collective consciousness just isn’t going to work in a prairie culture built upon individualistic Anglo-Saxon foundations and filled out by generations of furiously independent immigrant farmers keen to build their own realities. Earlier waves of collective consciousness, such as those who created the prairie co-operatives, crested and ebbed long ago and much of their human and ideological energy flowed into the cities and other parts of the economy, leaving behind a concentrated pool of the most individualistic to form today’s farming industries.

But there’s still lots of room for joint action on common farmers’ interests, as long as there are individual farmers committed enough to take those issues and champion them.

One of the issues Matheson has been working on rallying support behind recently is getting prairie hog farmers a fair share of the pork value of the pigs they produce and send to the packers. Quebec farmers have managed to achieve that and there’s no reason something similar can’t be achieved for western Canadian farmers, he thinks.

All it’ll take is serious commitment on the part of farmers and the rest of the industry to find a way to address a problem that threatens to undermine the industry’s future.

And that, like so many things in farming, will take individuals to step up and drive the issue forward. There are lots of collective needs for farmers out there right now.

Do we have enough dynamic individuals to take them on and give them the COVID treatment?

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