Whole Hogs and Weaners

IMG_0514 copyOnce you get away from the industrial model for producing pork there are a couple of different ways to run a hog farm.  While our pork sector in Thunder Bay isn’t as well-developed as it is out West or in southern Ontario, we’ve got a little cross-section of the sector at the Market that offers customers some choice about the way their pork is raised.

“Farrow to finish” operations generally include breeding stock:  a boar and his harem of sows which produce piglets raised up to market weight before being sold.  Some of these operations also sell piglets – known as “weaners” once they’ve been weaned off their mother’s milk – to other farmers to raise.  Sandy Acres Farm is the only pork producer at the Market operating under this model, and Northern Unique – our local supplier of Wild Boar – also raises their boar from farrow to finish.

Farrow to finish operations require a lot of infrastructure to operate:  big barns are needed to keep the breeding stock warm and comfortable year-round and to provide the young hogs with sufficient space as they grow.  Farmers running operations like this need to make enough profit on the sale of pork and piglets to cover the cost of keeping their boar and sows before any other profits can be considered… and a 700-pound boar is a big eater.  This is one of the reasons large-scale animal operations have become so enormous, and why it’s difficult to start a farrow-to-finish operation on the small scale:  those boars and sows are expensive house-guests, and big barns cost big dollars!

Loading weaners from a farmer in Fort Frances.

“Wean to finish” operations are more common in this part of the world for that reason.  A shed or even a small barn built out of straw bales will provide temporary shelter for young pigs in the early spring and late fall, letting farmers raise their animals throughout the warmer months while Mother Nature covers the heating costs.  Most of our local wean-to-finish farmers make use of outdoor pens and let their hogs grow up rooting, running and enjoying the outdoors.  Because of the relatively low startup costs for this type of operation it’s becoming more and more popular, but its seasonal nature creates peaks of demand both in the springtime, when farmers are all shopping for weaners, and at the abattoir in the fall, when everyone’s hogs reach market weight at about the same time.  Walkabout Farm – the second-generation Groenheide team selling through the family stall at Tarrymore Farms – and the Squash Queen both sell pork raised this way at the Market.

A truckload of weaners for the 2014 local market!

These two models can actually work really well together.  The sale of weaner pigs by the farrow-to-finish farmers helps cover the cost of the breeding stock and reduces the amount of space a farmer needs to raise litters to maturity.  The outdoor operations of a wean-to-finish operation grow product in a fairly efficient manner and provide markets for local grain-growers.

We are seeing some challenges in Thunder Bay currently due to the growing demand.  Local pork is popular stuff, and our few local farrow-to-finish operations aren’t able to keep up with the demand for piglets.  Area farmers are finding themselves buying further afield, even going out to Manitoba to bring home chubby pink weaners from the industrial operations there.

While the benefits of this approach are obvious – for the piglets who enjoy a life out in the sun, the grain farmers making a living helping to feed them, the hog farmers raising you the pork, and for you as a consumer of local pork  – a weaner operation is still a fragile system dependent on truck transport to bring in the most important supplies.

IMG_0466 copyThe solution to dependency in situations like this is typically expansion, and expansion, as we’ve already covered, is expensive.  Knowing that farmers already ride very close to the big zero in their ledgers, it’s pretty safe to say that the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim.  Expensive expansions mean higher prices for the customer, but higher prices often mean decreased sales.  That makes it risky for a farmer to invest in the infrastructure they need to expand!

Local pork is already a little more expensive than the industrial kind, and the price difference doesn’t at all reflect the difference in profit margin for the farmer operating without the massive scale of a brand-name operation.

Would you as a customer be willing to pay more for pork to help local farmers build a more sustainable model for pork production?

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