Reports of trespassers posing as Manitoba Hydro employees have Manitoba pork and chicken producers sounding the alarm.
Reports of trespassing are concerning for producers, especially as cases have recently been on the rise, said Manitoba Chicken Producers executive director Wayne Hiltz.
"Our farms are family farms, so we have families, kids, grandparents and babies. That’s their place of residence. Obviously, the safety of farmers is first and foremost. But also the safety of their livelihood," Hiltz said.
Manitoba Chicken Producers is aware of four separate trespassing incidents in the last few months. In three of these incidents, trespassers indicated they were an employee of Manitoba Hydro. In two of those instances, the farmers contacted Hydro and received confirmation that the person was not an employee nor on the farm for Hydro business.
Farmers have diligent food safety protocols in place to ensure they are providing safe food to consumers, Hiltz said, and trespassing can compromise these efforts by posing a biosecurity risk.
Biosecurity is essential for the livelihood of farmers, he said. Hiltz cited avian influenza as an example. The disease has hit various places in North America over the last decade. Millions upon millions of chickens were killed due to the disease.
Minnesota was one of the states hit hardest by avian influenza. Counties bordering southeastern Manitoba were also affected.
Biosecurity is what prevented it from spreading to Manitoba barns.
"Due to the great work of our farmers and their adherence to biosecurity there was not one avian influenza [outbreak] in Manitoba, despite the fact it was relatively a few miles away," Hiltz said.
"That’s a testament to how good our farmers adhere to biosecurity and food safety programs."
If biosecurity had been compromised, the disease spreading through a chicken population would have massive implications. Trade barriers could be established around the province or a designated area preventing farmers from moving poultry outside that area, leading to a shortage of poultry products. The shortage would result in increased prices for consumers and devastation to what are largely family-run farms.
"That could affect not just the farm where there’s a biosecurity breach, but also other farms in the area would have difficulty getting their product to market," Hiltz said. "It could be a whole segment of the industry where those birds need to be destroyed."
There is a wide range of options farmers face when confronted with trespassers, Hiltz said. At times it can be a lost tourist, but more and more they are witnessing activists committing break-and-enters.
"A few years ago we had trespassers on a farm and the farmer confronted them. He didn’t even have his cellphone on him … He got up to the trespassers and these guys were armed with machetes," Hiltz said. "Obviously, he was quite scared at that point — what do you do?"
Manitoba Chicken Producers is encouraging anyone who experiences suspicious trespassers to report the incident. When these reports are received the organization lets all farmers know there is a potential issue so they can keep an eye out.
"Our producers are diligent. We’ve got licence plates. We’ve got vehicle descriptions. That certainly helps the rest of the producers be on the lookout and be aware," Hiltz said.
He added Manitoba Chicken Producers are thankful to Minister of Economic Development and Training Ralph Eichler and Minister of Justice Cameron Friesen for their work in addressing producers’ rising concerns regarding trespassing through the Occupiers Liability Act and Animal Diseases Act.
The ministers were attentive when concerns were brought forward, Hiltz said, and made consultations that took place before amending the legislation. He appreciates that they valued the input and safety of farmers and their livelihood.
Manitoba Pork Producers has had reports of similar trespassing issues, said general manager Cam Dahl.
"We are hearing reports of individuals trying to gain access to properties, through, for example, misrepresentation of utility employees," Dahl said. "The reports ... are very concerning."
He added 2021 marks the first year he can recall incidents of trespassers posing as government employees to gain access to a farm. The motivation for these incidents is unclear.
When incidents of this nature occur, Dahl said, the first step is confirming a worker is who they say they are. Farmers can request identification and phone numbers are available to confirm a person is supposed to be on a farm.
If the person is persistent, the incident can be reported to the RCMP.
"Just like all of our homes, we don’t want to come home in the evening and see some stranger sitting at our kitchen table," Dahl said. "It’s the same for farmers."
The pork industry — a $2-million sector in Manitoba — also faces biosecurity risks. The threat of foreign animal diseases like African swine fever could devastate the industry across the country.
Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Carson Callum said the organization is aware of some of the trespassing challenges animal industries in the province are facing.
"Biosecurity is really important for the health of the [animals]. You can see how quickly the disease can spread and if you don’t have some restrictions in place to curb the spread of these harmful diseases it can be detrimental to the various livestock herds that the disease impacts," Callum said.
Anecdotally he has heard stories associated with trespassing and rural crime, Callum said, but the beef sector is unique because herds are managed and maintained on large tracks of land.
"It’s difficult to know how many people are coming on to that land at a given time," Callum said.
He encouraged people to call the authorities when there is a potential trespassing incident.
"It’s always concerning and abnormal when folks come on the land when they’re not supposed to," Callum said.
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