Farmers may have an opportunity to take more control of meat processing sector

Cape Breton Post
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Page: A6
Section: Comment
Byline: John MacDonell

The recent announcement by Maple Leaf that it is shutting down its production plant in Canard has left some of us in disbelief. If it had come upon a robust agricultural economy, the announcement would have been devastating enough; unfortunately, this announcement came amid a crisis in the hog industry that has left it in free-fall.

Just imagine being a hog producer who was thinking that the poultry operation on his farm would help him through lean times.

Poultry producers who shipped to Maple Leaf are reassessing their options. This sudden turn of events may provide an opportunity.

Some may have found the constraints of the feeding regime burdensome when producing Maple Leaf prime chicken, so now chicken production may be somewhat unshackled. Chicken, and pork as well, have the advantage that both meats are fairly popular with consumers.

Practically 100 per cent of the chicken purchased by consumers in this province is grown here, as is 65 per cent of the pork consumed here. We actually should be enlarging the hog industry, not shrinking it.

We are fortunate to have this local product available. Local products offer us some advantages.

The first advantage is we can put our own rules on quality control in place so that we know what we are eating. Food from other jurisdictions doesn't have to meet our standards and we can't be sure what standard it does meet.

In addition, we can reduce energy costs and thereby reduce food cost by reducing the transport of products over large distances. This has positive impact on our environment as well as on the quality of the product when it arrives.

Having Nova Scotia consumers going to their local grocery stores and asking for Nova Scotia products puts pressure on the retailers to seek out foods produced in the province and to pay for the high quality local products.

The farmer getting paid appropriately for what he produces is the big challenge in the commodities that are not supply-managed.

Hog farmers are producing lots of local pork, consumers are paying enough, and the retailers are making a fortune in the food business, yet hog producers are going broke.

Maybe an educated public isn't the whole answer but it would be a help if retailers believed their customers really wanted the local product and if necessary were willing to shop somewhere else to get it.

Even shopping elsewhere is becoming more difficult because the retail sector is being monopolized into fewer and fewer hands.

Local food production promotes safety to consumers. Remember the recall of U.S. spinach last fall?

There is also security of delivery. It is said that if a disaster were to strike and the U.S. border were to close, grocery shelves here would be empty in two days.

One option that may work for both poultry and hog producers is for them to enter the value chain at another level.

Instead of just producing a raw product that someone else adds value to (and seems to make the most money on as well), perhaps farmers should be crunching the numbers to see whether there is a reasonable chance for them to take over the plant that processes their hogs.

There are at least two options: a producer-owned co-operative or a producer-and worker-owned co-operative.

These alternatives would have some challenges that would render a co-operative difficult but not impossible to make workable.

Two examples of such co-operatives are Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-op and the Brookside Abattoir Co-op, both of which are owned by sheep producers.

Maple Leaf has market share in the retail store that it is not going to want to give up. So securing more of the local market will be difficult.

Marketing Nova Scotia products for Nova Scotians would kick-start that. Greater access to our own government institutions would also be a big improvement over present policy, something the Conservatives have campaigned on since 1999 but have yet to really deliver on.

The options are many but the present situation may provide a welcome opportunity only if producers are not too beaten to seize on it.

John MacDonell, MLA for Hants East, is the NDP's agriculture critic. © 2007 Transcontinental Media G.P. All rights reserved.