Maple Leaf Forever (3): As for farmers?

Like lessons learned with eggs, we should know not to put all our chickens in one basket, or factory. Or even two. Nova Scotia’s commercial chicken farmers are about to pay the price for ignoring that advice. DIRK VAN LOON*

LIVERPOOL, NS (April 2007) – LIKE LESSONS LEARNED FROM EGGS, we should know not to put all our chickens in one basket, or factory. Or even two. Nova Scotia’s commercial chicken farmers are about to pay the price for ignoring that advice.

They are not alone paying the price for consolidation. In the half dozen years of this new century, Atlantic Canada’s farmers and partners in processing have taken one chilling bath after another beginning with the closure of Hub Meat Packers purchased by Maple Leaf Foods in 2000. Followed by Avon Foods of Berwick, NS, in 2004, Maple Leaf’s Shur-Gain mill in Port Williams in 2005, and the recently announced plan by Maple Leaf Foods to close its poultry processing plant in Canard, N.S. That’s not an all-inclusive list, just the major closures that come quickly to mind.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks that Larsen Packers, another company owned by Maple Leaf Foods, and the region’s principle hog packer and processor, will be closing, taking another 400 jobs out of Berwick.

The plight of pork producers, already in dire straits, was the catalyst for a rally in early January that drew about 400 farmers and their allies to the steps of the Nova Scotia legislature. There, speaker after speaker demanded immediate relief from the Tory government.

Ag Minister Brooke Taylor braved the storm of protest, stepping up to the microphone to remind the crowd of his government’s promises to farmers of late, like the announcement at the N.S. Federation of Agriculture annual meeting in December of millions in assistance come April.

“Now!” farmers shouted back. “We need help now!” Taylor, becoming visibly upset, closed his remarks, turned on his heel, and fled into Government House.

“Loss of poultry plant latest blow to farming,” read a headline in the 19 January Halifax Chronicle Herald. True, but it is not only devastating to farming or to the thousand (could be a low figure) men and women canning carrots or cutting meat directly affected. There are the truckers and brokers, communications and service people whose work shrinks or dies altogether with each “rationalization.” As a friend pointed out the other day, when communities lose a processing plant they lose tax base. Who picks up the shortfall? Every ratepayer. Red Green’s right, “We’re all in this together.”

All except for a researcher with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies who asked in another Chronicle Herald piece (16 January), “Should some pigs be more equal than others?” Ian Munro wondered why farmers should expect support when “grocery store chains do not demand support on the grounds of their role in national security.”

New Democrat MLA John MacDonell offered a possible explanation at the hog rally when he held up a pork roast he’d bought at Sobeys for $19.04, for which, at the current farm gate price, the farmer who grew the roast got $2.90; far less than the cost of production.

the system of control by a few agricultural behemoths must be broken in favour of local agriculture.

Government bailout so farmers can limp from one crisis to the next is not the answer. “In the long term,” wrote Ralph Surrette, frequent contributor to the Chronicle Herald, 20 January, “the system of control by a few agricultural behemoths must be broken in favour of local agriculture.”

Yes, but how?

Consolidation is killing rural Atlantic Canada. It goes farther than agriculture, however, and so far neither big industry nor government seems to care. The thinking seems to be that people will eat, and people will buy gas and tools and fertilizer no matter how far they have to travel to get these and other staples.

With few exceptions Atlantic Canada does not produce or consume enough of any commodity to warrant particular attention let alone special treatment by agri-business. A half-dozen mega hog farms out West could probably make up for any shortfall brought about by collapse of hog farming in Atlantic Canada. Dairy products? Farms milking thousands of head in the U.S. Southwest can flood our tiny market.

We are on our own, and must convince our citizens and governments of the importance of local production and consumption.

One trucker strike ought to do the trick.

*Dirk Van Loon is editor and publisher of the magazine Rural Delivery, based in Liverpool, NS, and may be reached at dvl@eastlink.ca

 

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