CANADA

Agricultural catastrophe

JOHN GEDDES December 14 1998
CANADA

Agricultural catastrophe

JOHN GEDDES December 14 1998

Confronting an excruciating choice

CANADA

Greg Meek had heard the horror stories. Pig farmers like himself gassing their animals, or shooting them, because pork prices had dropped so low that the producers could no longer afford to even feed their livestock. Meek, who runs a hog operation near Acme, 80 km northeast of Calgary, is hurting too. Along with his partner, Yolanda Osmond, he tends to 300 sows and markets about 6,300 hogs each year. With the recent crash in pork prices—down 60 per cent in the last year—Meek estimates he is losing about $30,000 a month. Still, the reports of mass slaughter disturbed him. Determined to send out a more positive message, Meek spearheaded an effort that is seeing dozens of Alberta farmers donate slaughtered hogs to local food banks.

“We would rather give our product away to those who cannot afford it,” he says, “than give it away to those who can.”

The gambit worked. In addition to drawing much-needed publicity to their plight, Meek and his fellow pork producers are helping meet the demand at inner-city food banks during the Christmas

peak. But the goodwill gesture has done little to resolve Meek’s immediate dilemma. If something doesn’t change quickly, and dramatically, the 40-year-old farmer figures he has just a few weeks before being forced to an excruciating choice. “We have to decide whether to keep throwing money at this thing,” he says, “or to shut it down, and lose even more money.” Meek, who bought the hog operation from his father after nearly two decades of helping to run it, is hoping that events will help him avoid that particular Rubicon. Two key factors are an expected short-term financial relief package from Ottawa and clear signals from the United States that there is a willingness to cut back on the high levels of pork production in that country that are helping to glut the market and depress prices. “If that doesn’t happen, we could lose this industry in Canada,” says Meek.

For Meek, that would also mean losing a way of life he has come to cherish. “It’s in your blood,” he says. “I love getting up in the morning and going to work with my animals.” But it’s not something that necessarily appeals to the next generation. Between them, Meek and Osmond have six children, ranging in age from seven to 22. None, they say, is considering taking up the family business. “You don’t see many young people getting into farming,” says Meek. “If they’ve grown up with it, they’ve seen so many bad times and so few good times that it's lost its appeal."

BRIAN BERGMAN in Acme