The changes just keep on coming as the organization representing Alberta’s pork producers marks its 50th birthday.
The industry has been transformed again and again since Alberta Pork was formed in 1969, said executive director Darcy Fitzgerald.
The top one is the number of producers.
“We used to have a lot of farms with few pigs,” he said. “Now we have a few producers with lots of pigs.”
The pork-processing world has followed suit — where there were many processors, there are now just a few. But now they compete in a global marketplace.
“Producers and processors have to become more consolidated and produce the product at a lower cost all the time,” said Fitzgerald.
There have been great advancements in the industry. Sows now have bigger, more robust litters, and pigs reach market weight using less water and feed.
And the world has changed even more when it comes to keeping viruses and disease at bay.
“We’ve put a lot of energy into biosecurity. That wasn’t there 50 years ago. Most pigs are outside, now they’re inside,” said Fitzgerald.
There’s also security of a different kind to worry about — one that was scarcely imaginable even a few years ago.
Like other livestock industries, the sector now has to think about (and plan for) activists who believe raising animals for food is immoral. Initially, anti-meat groups focused on ‘undercover’ operations in which one of their members would get a job in a barn or processing plant in hopes of secretly filming mistreatment of animals. But there is also the worry that groups of protesters will trespass on a farm in order to hold a demonstration.
“It’s a no-win situation for stuff like that,” said Fitzgerald. “If we’re not doing something right and people point out there’s a better way of doing something, we can improve. But when it is anti-livestock agriculture, it’s tough to deal with that issue.”
The need to communicate with the public about food and agriculture was non-existent 50 years ago.
The national pork industry is not growing, even though sales are increasing in desirable markets, such as Japan. Over the years, Canada has become one of the biggest providers of fresh chilled pork into Japan.
Fitzgerald said that if things are to improve in the pork industry, producers and processors need to work together to take advantage of more market opportunities.
Closer to home, there were some local threats. Four cases of porcine epidemic diarrhea were found in the province at the beginning of the year. All have been dealt with, but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s an incredible amount of work to work with the farms, to try to work through the protocols and get the whole barn cleaned back up again and place your pigs back into the processing facility,” said Fitzgerald. “You can’t transport them when they are sick. It does take a lot of work. That was a big hurdle for us to look after.”
The nightmare scenario is that somehow African swine fever will arrive here. The devastating disease is thought to have wiped out half of China’s hog herd (which was the largest in the world) and is spreading across Asia.
“We’ve worked really hard with the Canadian Pork Council and other pork organizations to make sure that border services understand it and put more information and things into place. We’ve seen a lot more activity at airports and such to make sure that products aren’t coming into our country that would cause us problems.”
Still, work is also underway on an emergency plan if the disease were ever found in Canada.
International trade was a cause of concern for producers this year, as China stopped importing Canadian pork in June after reporting residue of the banned additive ractopamine in a bunch of pork products. Trade resumed again in November.
“For us, China is a big market,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to have as many marketplaces as we can because we really do rely on exports in our industry, more than any other country.
“Canada relies on other countries to buy our product. We really need to keep those good relationships and work on them. Seeing China come back and say, yes, we can enter into the country again, that feels good.”
Prices were a bit of a roller-coaster this year. In the early spring, prices skyrocketed, which was good.
“Our problem sometimes is the ability to get a forward contract and lock the price in. We’re working on that right now,” he said.
Fitzgerald said there are good prospects for pork producers in Western Canada.
“The Chinese marketplace has got itself into a bit of a problem, at least for the next five years,” he said. “They will be desperate and in need of countries like Canada to supply their protein.”
As for Alberta Pork itself, the group is determined to work to develop a positive relationship between producers and packers.
“That really is a change from where we have been — we have often had a very adversarial relationship,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to get over that. We both do things differently, but we both do something special and unique, and we can work together to help each other and become better.”
That would be another fundamental change, but a way needs to be found to make it more profitable for producers, or else more will leave the sector, he said.
“Somewhere in this whole supply chain, we need to do some correction where the producer sees a positive outcome. Everybody further up the chain seems to share a part of this. Right now, they are not sharing enough.”