Years of financial and regulatory challenges have taken a toll on pork production in Manitoba, to the point where the province’s largest hog processing facility now needs around 175 new barns built to operate at full capacity, according to the company’s president and CEO.
Speaking at the Manitoba Pork Council annual meeting in Winnipeg on April 15th, Michael McCain, head of Maple Leaf Foods, said the hog sector needs to return to a balanced state to remain competitive.
“Right now we’re not in balance. We have neither enough pigs or people to operate the capacity we have in place today efficiently, and we think that needs to be corrected,” he said.
Maple Leaf’s hog plant at Brandon — which employs more people than any other private facility in Manitoba — is designed to process 90 thousand pigs per week, but is currently operating at around 70 thousand. McCain said roughly 175 new barns need to be built to make up for the idle capacity of approximately one million pigs per year. For context, only four barns were constructed in Manitoba between 2008 and 2013.
After effectively banning the construction of new hog barns in southeastern Manitoba in 2008, and then across the province in 2011, the provincial government has recently agreed to allow a small number of barns to be built if they meet strict criteria (read previous story here).
“I think the framework is in place for responsible growth to achieve balance. We’re not advocating unbridled growth. We’re advocating an efficient industry — it requires balance in order to accomplish that,” said McCain.
If new barns are not built, the infrastructure crunch could escalate quickly, he noted: “Much of the existing barn capacity was built over a very short, limited period of time and we’re going to need to replace it largely at once. We’re going to need a healthy industry to make those investments.”
The company has also faced “more obstacles than support” in addressing a shortage of available labour, as he pointed out Brandon’s unemployment rate has been sitting below four percent for many months.
Since opening in 1999, more than 1,000 employees at the Brandon plant have come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker program — over 800 of them have become permanent residents, he noted.
Calling the federal government’s new restrictions in the TFW program a “classic definition of shooting yourself in the foot,” McCain said the company currently has 56 job vacancies in Brandon, despite the reduced processing schedule. At full capacity, the plant would need another 350 employees.
“While the government negotiates important new trade deals that are critical to our industry, its moves in the Temporary Foreign Worker program severely impact our ability to take any advantage of this new international market access,” he told producers at the meeting.
In the end, both the pig and people shortages makes it harder to compete in the world market, said McCain.
“Our competitors are not waiting until our balance is better aligned for capacity. To compete with the Smithfields of the world, we need to maintain very high capacity utilization rates in our processing facilities, with two full shifts or more, and that is still a ways off.”
Michael McCain speaks with the media at the Manitoba Pork Council AGM: