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Pork industry hurting: report

A dwindling herd and an exodus of producers are among the pork industry trends that Statistics Canada highlights in an analytical paper it issued on Tuesday. But an official with Alberta Pork says recent developments in the sector provide reason for optimism.

In a report entitled “The changing face of the Canadian hog industry,” the agricultural division of the national statistical agency describes how the Canadian pig herd declined by 15.7 per cent between 2006 and 2011. For Alberta, the drop was 31.9 per cent.

The paper also noted how the number of Canadian farms producing pigs fell 35.9 per cent during the same five-year period. In Alberta, the slide was even greater at 45.6 per cent.

Statistics Canada blamed these trends on a number of factors: low prices, high feed costs, harmful trade policies like the United State’s mandatory country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) legislation and disease — including H1N1 and its incorrect identification as “swine flu,” which undermined consumer confidence.

Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director with Alberta Pork, confirmed that it’s been trying times for hog producers.

“They had about seven years of no money, really,” he said.

“There were times when guys were selling pigs for minus $40, minus $50 — just hanging on.”

In recent months, however, improved prices and lower feed costs have allowed the industry to see some black ink again, said Fitzgerald.

“It’s giving producers some profit. A lot more than they’ve seen in the past.

“I think we’re not on the downhill anymore. It’s looking better.”

That said, the market pig count in Canada is still trending downward. Fitzgerald estimates the current tally at about 26 million, a far cry from the approximately 30 million in 2006.

In Alberta, market pig numbers are in the 2.3-million to 2.4-million range, as compared with about four million eight years ago. The number of registered producers in Alberta are about 375, said Fitzgerald, but fewer than 300 of these probably rely on pigs for their livelihood. Pork is still important to Canada’s balance of trade.

“It’s still around that $3.1 billion, $3.2 billion mark in exports,” said Fitzgerald, who believes global demand for Canadian pork will only increase.

In addition to the prospects of more liberalized trade with European and Asian countries, international demand for protein is growing, he said.

“When you look at the world overall, there are only so many places that grow food for the rest of the world and that number is dwindling.”

Challenges still exist, acknowledged Fitzgerald. Some of the old ones — like COOL — remain, and there are new ones. These include the ongoing threat of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) and restrictions on the use of temporary foreign workers by farmers and pork processors like Olymel.

But, he said, the outlook for the industry is improved from 2011.

“I think there’s a little more optimism for sure from where they were before.”

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