LACOMBE — Roughly a dozen pig farmers scrummed Canada’s agriculture minister during a press conference held to announce new money for research on Friday afternoon.
Set up at the Lacombe Research Centre, Minister Gerry Ritz, MPs Blaine Calkin and Earl Dreeshen and MLA Ray Prins, announced a new program that will add $158 million in federal money to research programs over the next four years. Each of the provinces will contribute as well, with Alberta kicking in $109 million over five years, said Prins.
The announcement didn’t cut much mustard with hog farmers struggling to stay afloat despite the litany of events that have erased their profits over the past three years and already forced many out of business.
Prices had just started to recover in the aftermath of the discovery in early May that some of the pigs on an Alberta farm had been diagnosed with H1N1 virus. But then, Canada’s dollar started to gain strength, which knocked them back yet again.
Farmers estimate their losses at $30 per head sold, in part because of the stronger dollar.
“There’s such a relationship between what we do with our pricing mechanism and the dollar, it’s massacring us,” said Lacombe producer Herb Holoboff.”
The issue is survival, not research, and it has been that way for the past three years, said Tees-area producer Herman Simons, chair of Alberta Pork.
“It just felt like we were crawling out of this barrel full of water that we were drowning in and we had our nose just over the edge and we get whacked over the head with a big stick,” said Simons.
Ritz told the gathering of producers that, while he understands the problems they face, it has been difficult to tackle some of the issues affecting their industry. Issues include new labelling laws in the United States and their resulting affect on Canadian hogs and pork products.
Trade rules are great, but there are no mechanisms to help countries enforce those rules, he said. Canada has challenged country of origin labelling in the US, but it takes three years for a World Trade Organization panel to make a ruling. By then, the damage has already been done, he said.
“We’re going to have to find a different way to do it. We’re working on it.”
Ritz told the producers that his plans include a trip to China later this month, during which he hopes to convince the Chinese government to reopen its borders to Alberta Pork, currently barred because of the H1N1 virus.
He said other programs have been tried and did not work as effectively as was hoped.
“We did a cull sow program a year ago. We kept back-dating that because we couldn’t trigger the money out. Guys weren’t doing it. We were trying to lower the industry . . . couldn’t do it. So, we are reconfiguring the money that’s left.”
It would help if Canada could cut its dependence on exports to the United States by about half and send more products to other countries, said Ritz.
It’s fortunate, he said, that costs including fuel, feed and interest rates have lowered from last year, he said.
“Overall, the farm sector is doing well. We’ve got some holes. We’ve got some problems. I refuse to trade one farm gate off against another. You guys wouldn’t want me to do that anyway.”
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