Back in April, Murray Markert spoke for the entire Alberta pork sector when asked to sum up the mood of producers.
“Relief” was the Vulcan farmer’s single-word answer.
And that’s a good way to sum up the entire year.
Despite a close call in October, the sector was poised to end the year the way it began — namely free of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv).
But the financial picture — also thanks largely to PEDv — could not be more different.
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Prices were $163 per slaughter hog at the start of 2014, and rocketed to a breathtaking $284 in April. They remained near that price for several months before settling around $190 by year’s end.
That meant producers were earning an unprecedented return of nearly $130 at the peak — a badly needed injection of cash following years of poor prices, soaring feed costs, and negative market forces, particularly Washington’s country-of-origin labelling law and the formerly high-flying loonie.
“What they need is a really good year or two,” Ron Gietz, pork specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, said in April.
“If you can make returns of $100 a head or more, that certainly helps cover the ground pretty quickly. They needed this.”
However, for an individual farm, all those gains could be wiped out in an instant if PEDv showed up in its herd. It takes just a few days after the virus arrives for infected pigs to start suffering from diarrhea and vomiting so severely that large numbers of younger animals die.
And although no cases had been found east of the Manitoba border, distance is no protection.
That was amply demonstrated in October, when PEDv was found in the office of a pig-handling facility in Alberta. It got the all-clear after a subsequent round of testing, but producers were given a grim warning — assume the virus is present at every facility, hog farm, and any truck showing up in your yard.
“Producers should be considering all of these sites to be potentially positive at any time,” said Julia Keenliside, veterinary epidemiologist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“Even if there are negative surveillance results, because of the nature of pig traffic and truck movement, they could be contaminated again at any moment.”
The vigilance helped Canada avoid the devastation south of the border, which has seen nearly 9,000 farms infected since PEDv showed up in early 2013. (In Canada, the number is about 70 — with 90 per cent of cases in Ontario.)
It was the U.S. situation that drove prices so high, but the sad truth is that it was too late for most Alberta hog operations. There are now only about 350 left, compared to 1,200 in 2005.
The vast majority of survivors had other sources of income and a faith that things would eventually turn around, said Markert.
But it was a hard time even for those who pulled through, he added.
“It’s tough to see all those people who had their farms and their dreams wash away,” he said in April. “It’s difficult to see someone lose something that they’ve worked for, for a whole lot of years.”