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Adopt-A-Pig, Save-A-Farm

Nova Scotia farm jumps at a program that connects producers with buyers

By PAUL SCHNEIDEREIT

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It was not a happy Christmas at Maple Lane Farms. But 2007 has already brought an idea so good that it just may have saved the family-owned operation.
Low pork prices and rising feed costs meant hog farmers like Nova Scotia’s Canavan family were living a nightmare of continuing losses and mounting debt. Each animal shipped cost between $50 and $60 more to produce than the Canavans received from the meat packers. The math wasn’t pretty but it was clear.

“We were losing money. We couldn’t do it any more,” says Lori Canavan-Reid, the third generation to call the farm, set in the rolling countryside of Greenhill, Hants County, 40 minutes northwest of Halifax, home. Her grandparents, James and Myrtle Canavan, started Maple Lane Farms as a dairy/chicken operation in 1945. The business switched to hogs in the late ‘60s.

Maple Lane’s current owners, Lori, 43, her mom Claire, 67, and uncle Lloyd William (Uncle Bill), 50, had already begun rightsizing the herd towards a target of 1,500 animals, including 142 sows, half its previous size. But it wouldn’t be enough. With feed bills mounting, the Canavans—like so many other hog producers in the small Atlantic province—were desperate.

So the Canavans went public. They called in the media and explained that, with the high cost of production, low market prices and a feed bill topping $60,000, they couldn’t afford to keep their pigs. When those news stories appeared, a provincial government official came to the farm, knocked on the door and warned that they could face criminal charges if they didn’t take care of their animals.
Lori was well aware of the regulations and had no intention of being cruel to her animals. “We’re in debt up to our eyeballs,” she says. “We didn’t need that.”
That’s when Bev Connell, an agricultural consultant and good friend, called Lori to commiserate and told her about an idea he’d picked up in Newfoundland.
Several years back, Bev told Lori, a Newfoundland farmer with a smaller operation of about 100 sows decided to see if people would “adopt” his pigs. The idea was for consumers to pay the farmer directly for their pork, at a better price than they’d get in the supermarket and that the farmer would get from the packers. Word spread. Soon, people started “adopting” the farmer’s pigs.

“It worked. He managed to keep his farm,” says Bev, who included the story in his book, Added Value Through Farm Diversification, written for the Canadian Farm Business Management Council. “So I told Lori, ‘Why don’t you give it a go?’”
Lori’s reaction was immediate.

“I was screaming and yelling and very excited,” she recalls. “I loved it. It was instantaneous. I knew it had to work.”

Bev’s call came on a Friday in January. By the following Wednesday, she, her mom and uncle had come up with a plan and launched their “adopt-a-pig” project—by calling a press conference! Since her farm had just been in the news, follow-up stories soon appeared about the farm’s new program. And, Lori says, the phone started ringing the next day and hasn’t stopped. After the initial rush, volume leveled off. By the end of February, Lori was getting 30 calls and 15 emails a day, asking her how they could “adopt” a pig.

Here’s how it works. For $325-$150 up front and $175 three weeks before the product goes into the freezer—customers “adopt” one of the farm’s pigs. In return, when the animal, fed on an all-natural grain diet developed by a nutritionist, reaches market weight (about 230 pounds), the meat is cut and wrapped to the customer’s specifications, vacuum packed, labeled, frozen and delivered, at no extra charge, anywhere in Nova Scotia. If groups buy a single hog, Lori says, they’ll deliver to each customer, also at no extra charge.
“The public response has been phenomenal,” she says. “It’s a good deal and they see that. And they want to help. They just want the opportunity to help.”
By mid-March, the farm had 100 pigs confirmed adopted and another 50 adoptions in the works. People can either adopt a piglet or, if they prefer, an animal closer to market weight. It’s a win-win: The customer gets a quality product at an excellent price—about $1.81 a pound—and the farm makes significantly more per animal than they’d get from the packers. The program has been so successful, Lori says, that they’re going to keep it running indefinitely. The farm plans to stop shipping to the packers altogether, selling only through adoptions and their own small store on the property.

No doubt about it, says Lori. The adopt-a-pig program made the “crucial difference” in saving their farm.