The flu formerly known as swine is now infecting pigs in Alberta. Hog farmers are saying the fall-out of this flu could be the last straw for their businesses, already struggling after years of low prices. The fact that these farmers are on the brink is no surprise. The mainstream hog industry has been participating in a race to the bottom for decades. The price a farmer gets for a pig is notoriously low.
In a bid to stay in business in the highly competitive, globalized food industry, farmers have signed contracts with large food corporations. To supply the companies with the number of pigs their contracts require them to, these farms have become bigger and bigger, incurring more and more debt to grow.
Indebted and with giant operation costs, the farmer becomes a price taker. He needs to sell the pigs to pay the interest on the loans, to run the machinery and he’ll take whatever price is offered. Now comes the swine flu. Demand for pork drops driving the price down. Then the herds themselves get hit with the infection. It’s a recipe for bankruptcy.
But the small hog farmers who have chosen a different path, I suspect are doing OK right now. These are the farmers who have cultivated relationships with their communities. They know the people who buy their pork and these people know them from the farmers’ markets, through their CSAs. Chances are, these consumers won’t be as likely to be scared into avoiding pork since they have a direct connection to their food producer. And so this small farmer is therefore more resilient to the global market pressures that just may force the industrial hog operation down the road out of business.
The swine flu reveals yet another benefit of a local and sustainable food economy.