Ontario pork producers feel 'volatile' effect of Conestoga Meats shutdown

The week-long shutdown at Conestoga Meats is causing uncertainty for hog farmers in Ontario, including a financial hit and the looming possibility of euthanizing livestock.

Farmers worry about financial hit of supply chain disruption and possibility of euthanization

John de Bruyn says "it's looking fairly ugly for returns for producers for the balance of this year." He estimates between a $30 and $50 loss per animal for producers. (Submitted by Stacey Ash )

A week-long shutdown at Conestoga Meats is causing uncertainty for hog farmers in Ontario.

The plant, which is one of Ontario's largest pork processing facilities, stopped production on Monday after seven workers tested positive for COVID-19. The facility in Kitchener processes about 35,000 to 40,000 hogs a week.

John de Bruyn's farm in Oxford County near Ingersoll normally takes all of its hogs to be processed at Conestoga Meats — two transport trucks full of about 200 hogs a week. 

De Bruyn is also vice chair of Ontario Pork, a group that represents more than 1,000 pork producers in the province. He says the shutdown of Conestoga Meats and other pork processing plants in Canada and the United States is causing "fear and a lot of anxiety among our group."

Euthanizing hogs 'last resort'

The problem for pork producers in Ontario is two-fold. They're dealing with both an excess of livestock and a financial hit.

Some farmers in the United States and parts of Canada are reportedly destroying their livestock because of the closures of meat processing plants. But de Bruyn says he doesn't think that's happening with pork producers in Ontario — at least not yet.

"Euthanizing animals would be a last resort," said de Bruyn.

"When market pigs are ready, we expect them to leave our facilities, leave the barn, and quickly more pigs come to fill their places," said de Bruyn. "It's not like we can just go park them in a parking lot or set them outside. When they're ready, they're ready."

There's some flexibility in the the supply chain, said de Bruyn, but even a week's shutdown can leave pork producers in a precarious position.

'Ugly returns'

De Bruyn says the financial outlook for pork producers is "volatile."

"It's looking fairly ugly for returns for producers for the balance of this year," said de Bruyn. He expects producers will face a loss of between $30 and $50 per animal.

Ken McEwan, an economics and agribusiness professor at the University of Guelph's Ridgetown campus, has been studying the effects of the pandemic on the pork industry. 

McEwan points out that pork prices have been "unseasonably low," which "puts a lot of pressure on producers."

He says after the financial crisis in 2008, there was a forced cut to the hog supply, which may happen again.

"To lose Conestoga [Meats], which is one of two federal plants in the province of Ontario, is tough. It's very important to our production flow."

De Bruyn says he's trying to focus on his daily activities, which includes planting hog feed for next year. But he's also calling for extra support from the federal government.

"I think with the unprecedented conditions, it's probably something we could use a bit of government help for in the short-term to get us the cash flow [we need] to get us into the fall," said de Bruyn.