“When Maple Leaf sneezes, #bdnmb catches a cold. We need more hogs @drewcaldwell @GregSelinger. 1800 people have light paycheques.”
— A Tuesday tweet by Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst
The fact that the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon has had to cut production hours to a majority of its 2,200 employees due to a shortage of hogs in this province does not surprise us.
A potential hog shortage has been a looming problem since 2011 when Manitoba’s NDP government took the drastic step of restricting the construction or expansion of hog barns in this province, unless they’re equipped with a cost-prohibitive anerobic digestion system to treat the manure.
The lack of hogs is a direct effect of the provincial moratorium. Industry groups like the Manitoba Pork Council have expressed growing anger that provincial ministers and Premier Greg Selinger have their political blinders on when it comes to finding scientific and low-budget solutions to mitigate their environmental concerns.
In early April, for example, Mike Teillet, a sustainable development programs manager with Manitoba Pork, announced that his organization and the province had forged a tentative agreement to require new and expanded barns to inject manure, have a multi-cell manure storage system, and agree to limit the total amount of phosphorus allowed to accumulate on farm fields.
The council seemed hopeful that the tentative deal could have ended the moratorium on new swine barn construction. Yet when Selinger sat down with the Brandon Sun editorial board two weeks later, Selinger seemed dead set against lifting the barn ban.
“The hog moratorium on unsustainable hog barn expansion has to continue to protect those valuable assets of lakes and rivers and streams in this province,” Selinger said at the time. “But within that moratorium … there’s lots of room for opportunities to continue to grow the industry in Manitoba.”
We can only assume that the tentative deal fell apart, or Selinger would have trumpeted this as a potential solution.
From a Brandon perspective, it’s very difficult to believe the premier’s assertions that his government is working with members of the pork industry to find ways to work around the industry-crippling environmental legislation the NDP imposed. The continued frustration of hog producers suggests otherwise.
We also have seen little scientific evidence the moratorium has done much good in addressing Lake Winnipeg’s water quality.
There is much at stake here. Brandon’s mayor is quite correct when she implies Maple Leaf’s production problems could directly impact this city’s financial well-being if the hog supply situation worsens.
For Maple Leaf to reduce production hours for 1,800 employees on the kill and cut floors is a bad sign for both the hog industry and the city. What happens to Brandon if and when Maple Leaf uproots itself — as it has done in other communities — and moves its flagship operations to greener pastures?
And Maple Leaf’s production problems seem to be worsening.
In early April, Manitoba Pork Council general manager Andrew Dickson told the Sun that the Maple Leaf plant was operating at about 80 per cent capacity, while plants in the U.S. were operating in the high 90 per cent range. In his update this week, Dickson says the plant is now operating at 70 per cent capacity, running about 65,000 pigs per week, a far cry from the 90,000 it’s capable of.
No wonder the company is cutting hours back and eliminating a full production day per month.
Sources tell the Sun that some newcomer Maple Leaf employees are already in financial trouble, to the point of bankruptcy. This extra hit to their paycheque will most certainly push them over the financial edge.
This is no longer about the environment, if it ever was. The province is toying with the lives and livelihoods of Manitoba producers, businesses and Brandon citizens in order to gain a few extra green votes in downtown Winnipeg.
Enough is enough.