The contrast between the announcement of the closure of the General Motors auto plant in Oshawa, and the launch of the new Maple Leaf Food poultry processing plant couldn’t be more stark.
It’s a difference between a sector being disrupted and in decline, and one that continues to grow and draw investment.
Mark Brock, past chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario was the first one I saw to make this observation on the day of the Maple Leaf announcement and he took it further, calling for policy that truly supported the largest sector of the economy — agriculture and food.
The Maple Leaf Food announcement of what is being called the largest investment in Ontario agriculture history at $650 million is significant for several reasons, beyond the optics of the contrast with the GM plant closure.
The investment was sorely needed.
New meat processing plants are rare and expensive investments and Maple Leaf’s commitment should assure the demand for chicken for a generation.
Efficiency improvements are important for processing plants. They are usually incremental, small improvements within a plant that make a process better or more profitable. This plant will help bring a significant jump in processing efficiency. It will also give the company the ability to sell more of its product. It expects the plant capacity to help grow the amount of chicken that Maple Leaf sells and that’s good for poultry farmers.
It will not be good for overall employment as the total number of jobs, when the three plants slated to close is compared to the new plant, will likely drop.
I feel for the people of St. Marys. As someone who lives within commuting distance of the town, I know people who have worked in that plant. It’s been important to local employment. But it is also an older plant, with scale that no longer works at the high-speed processing line investment level.
When a plant closes, it also means adjustments to suppliers and service providers to the plant. Some of them will end up with a continued relationship with Maple Leaf, some of them won’t, which is challenging for a small town.
Let’s not forget that Maple Leaf finalized the closure of the poultry processing plant in Thamesford earlier this year, costing 300 jobs there.
So, yes, there have been job losses and the centralizing of processing into one plant instead of three will mean fewer access points for farmers. The London plant should mean easier access for more farmers because getting into plants in the Toronto area is never a fun job.
The poultry investment is good news but we need some similar news in the hog and beef sectors.
We badly need a similar upgrade to a new facility for hog processing in Ontario. Maple Leaf Foods sold its Burlington plant instead of opting for that large investment in pigs and has its centre of operations in pork now located in Manitoba.
The Sofina plant in Burlington has been a marvel case of continuing to operate an old facility within a city. It’s the largest processor of pigs in Ontario and some day it needs a replacement. Conestoga Meats continues to expand and recently built a new addition to its plant replacing older and less efficient areas.
There was some hope that the former Great Lakes Meats hog processing facility in Mitchell, now also owned by Sofina, would also become the home of a much larger plant, but it has been revamped into a turkey processing facility.
We also need more beef processing competition and capacity in this province. The lack of capacity has recently put a damper on how many cattle farmers can put into their feedlots.
And while I’m on the topic — small scale meat processors continue to fight their way through regulations and the challenge of finding labour, although my sense in my area is that some of those abattoirs have found some stability with increasing demand for local foods. There are some excellent small meat processors in this province and they need to be encouraged.