Neepawa’s Loss Everyone’s Loss

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it does. Between drought, BSE, and low grain prices, things were looking pretty bleak. And then our rural economy suddenly took another hit.

The Springhill Farms hog plant in Neepawa, an important value-added processor provided over 300 jobs and a ready market for Manitoba hogs. Its closing is a big loss. Since the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon can use all the hogs it can buy, farmers will not be directly affected, but the town of Neepawa has suffered a crushing blow.

Where are the loud opponents of hog industry expansion when you really need them? Nowhere, that’s where. Claiming to speak for rural communities and residents, they do everything they can to stop, delay, or otherwise cancel any and all hog industry expansion in Manitoba. While we cannot pin the loss of Springhill on them directly, we should realize that the welfare of rural communities is last on these groups’ list of priorities.

My contacts in Neepawa tell me that some businesses are seeing a 30% decline in volume. Springhill workers came from all over the region; many commuted over an hour each way. While they may not have lived in Neepawa, they certainly found it convenient to shop there after their shifts. Vehicles were purchased at local car dealerships, for instance. A general increased in the level of economic activity caused by the plant was felt by everybody.

And so is this current decline. Home sales are flagging, as people put their real estate purchases on hold, in light of the current economic uncertainty.

Given the age of the plant and stiff competition from other facilities, this closure may not have been preventable. But there are still lessons to be learned. One that stands out is that we all have a stake in the economic development of our region, and we all have to “be there” when it comes time to defend them.

In the case of hearings on hog industry expansion, the only ones we usually see, squared off against each other, are the direct proponents of the particular barn or plant and the vociferous opponents. Few or no community development groups or local Chambers of Commerce come to the aid of the beleaguered developer. Where are the unions who claim to represent hog plant workers? I have yet to see or hear of any representative of “big labour” show up in defense of the hog industry. Except to collect union dues, of course.

Hog plant workers, clothing-store owners, sellers of electronic goods, car dealers and home-owners in Agro-Manitoba all have a stake in the health of the hog industry. The case is the same for any and all of the value-added industries that Manitoba has created.

We cannot afford to throw away any opportunity just because we think we won’t like it. It’s the year 2003; we have the environmental technology to make just about anything work well. The hog industry is no exception. Environmental and decision-making technologies that allow for industry expansion and environmental protection at the same time are well in hand.

All segments of all rural communities had better be there to defend and promote all the value-added opportunities we can muster. Our futures depend on it. Just ask Neepawa.