Farmer awaits post- H1N1 help

LESLIEVILLE — The family whose farm was shut down last spring after some of their pigs caught the flu is still waiting for the paycheque meant to get them back on their feet.

Arnold Van Ginkel and daughter Lydia

Arnold Van Ginkel and daughter Lydia

LESLIEVILLE — The family whose farm was shut down last spring after some of their pigs caught the flu is still waiting for the paycheque meant to get them back on their feet.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency quarantined Arnold Van Ginkel’s farm last April after confirming that some of his pigs were infected with the H1N1 flu virus. Ultimately, it was determined the pigs got the virus after a tradesman had contracted H1N1 in Mexico and then was hired to do some work at the farm.

“I had problems here with sick pigs. I phoned the vet and he made the link to Mexico, and that’s when things started to go,” said Van Ginkel, whose kitchen table turned into an ad hoc board room as officials from the food inspection agency, Alberta Agriculture and Food, and Alberta Pork and the Agriculture Financial Services Corp. descended on the farm.

“It couldn’t possibly have happened at a worse time,” Stuart McKie, Edmonton-based policy specialist for Alberta Pork, said this week.

Health officials had just started to raise alarm about a new strain of flu that had showed up in Mexico. Because of its genetics, the World Health Organization called it swine flu.

Despite the science assuring that eating pork does not pass the illness to people, the industry had already shifted into defence mode, begging the media to stop using the term ‘swine flu’ and to use its scientific name instead — H1N1.

Van Ginkel, as worried as anyone about the impact of the virus, had no issue with the CFIA’s decision to quarantine his farm. Keenly aware of the trade implications, he supported Olymel’s position that its Red Deer plant would not buy stock from the herd.

But he soon found himself mired in muck with no apparent relief in sight.

Besides the loss of income from being unable to market his hogs, Van Ginkel and his wife Alida had six children to feed as well as roughly 2,500 to 3,000 animals in the barn.

On top of that, his herd of 130 sows was producing new batches of piglets every week.

Normally, Van Ginkel would ship the mature animals for market once a week, collect his cheque and move young animals up to take their place. With the quarantine, there was no place for the mature animals to go and no money coming in to keep them all fed. That was where everything started to come unglued.

The food inspection agency has a solid program on place to cover farmers’ losses in the event animals are ordered destroyed to check the spread of deadly infections such as BSE or foot and mouth disease, said McKie. However, there were no protocols in place for the type of situation that had developed on the Van Ginkel farm.

The federal government program simply had no mechanism in place to order the animals destroyed, so there was no way it could cover the losses.

“They came here, they put us under quarantine and they walked away. Then it was my problem,” said Van Ginkel.

Over the ensuing weeks and with considerable help from McKie and from veterinarian Julia Keensliside, an epidemiologist with Alberta Agriculture and Food, Van Ginkel was able to strike a deal with both levels of government. His animals were to be destroyed and a compensation package worked out under the Agri-Stability and Agri-Recovery programs, which are offered jointly by the federal and provincial governments.

The province covered his losses for the first 500 pigs destroyed, which officials believed would buy the farm about a month of breathing room from the time of the outbreak.

But Van Ginkel is still awaiting compensation for the remaining animals (approximately 2,500), which were killed and then removed from the farm early in June.

The settlement he had negotiated through AFSC was based on the income he had lost and the amount of money he would need to build a new herd. Van Ginkel said he cannot discuss the amount offered, which is still subject to adjustments.

So far, only a portion of the money has arrived. The rest is coming, that much has been assured, said McKie.

However, payment has stalled within the federal system, which does not seem to recognize the urgency of the situation, he said.

What still stings is that H1N1 has been found on a number of other farms in Canada and around the world since the quarantine and subsequent destruction of Van Ginkel’s herd.

“I was the first one. That was the thing. And so much was unknown,” said Van Ginkel. More discoveries were made after leaders learned that H1N1 was not as huge of a threat as it had seemed, said McKie. None of those farms were quarantined.

Van Ginkel and his family, meanwhile, continue to live on their savings while waiting for their cheque.

He has cleaned out the barn and started to build a new herd, hoping to market his first batch of hogs in March.