NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Thursday, June 16, 2011
COMMITTEE ROOM 1
Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Mr. Sidney Prest (Chairman)
Mr. Jim Boudreau (Vice-Chairman)
Mr. Howard Epstein
Mr. Gary Ramey
Ms. Lenore Zann
Mr. Leo Glavine
Mr. Andrew Younger
Mr. Alfie MacLeod
Mr. Chuck Porter
[Mr. Leonard Preyra replaced Mr. Howard Epstein]
[Hon. Christopher d’Entremont replaced Mr. Alfie MacLeod]
Ms. Jana Hodgson
Legislative Committee Clerk
Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association
Mr. Earl Prime, President
Mr. Simeon Roberts, Managing Director
Mr. Dan Mullen, Board Member
HALIFAX, THURSDAY, JUNE 16, 2011
STANDING COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES
MR. CHAIRMAN: Good morning, everyone. It looks like we’re just pretty near right on time to get our meeting started. We will start with the introduction of our members of the committee.
[The committee members witnesses introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: The agenda today is going to be from the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association. We will have a question and answer period and then an opportunity at the end for the closing statements from the witnesses.
Now, if you would like to start with the presentation on your organization?
MR. EARL PRIME: I would like to take the time to thank you for the invitation to this meeting. At this time I would like to pass it over to Simeon Roberts, who is the managing director of our industry, and I would like you to listen very carefully as he presents. We’ve come to appreciate him; he’s knowledgeable in our industry, so we appreciate having him here with us today as well.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Roberts.
MR. SIMEON ROBERTS: Thank you all, and thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the invitation to come and meet with you. We’re looking forward to a productive and informative morning. When I was driving in this morning from southwest Nova Scotia, I couldn’t help but recall a very small classroom in rural England, when I was a child taking a course in North American geography. It was at that time that I first became aware of the influence of the fur industry in opening up the economic development of Canada and the rest of North America.
Later on in my career, when I came to Canada, I had an opportunity to be a lecturer in geography at Saint Mary’s University, where I taught Canadian geography. There again I had an opportunity to teach our students, who were very unaware of the role of the fur industry in opening up Canada.
I was also involved with an engineering company here in Halifax and I was part of a federal mission to Russia. At that time it had just converted over from the Soviet Union. I was in Moscow, and I couldn’t believe all the residents walking around downtown Moscow. They all had fur hats or mink coats on. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to the colleague I was working with, who happened to be the Director of Surveys and Mapping of the old Soviet Union, and he said, well, Simeon, I think you really need to get a fur hat. So he took me into his store and then I was able to purchase an ondatra, or a muskrat, hat. I’m very proud to wear it whenever I am in Halifax or around the world.
Now I’ve come full circle: for the last three years I’ve been working closely with the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association as their managing director. The association has been registered in the Registry of Joint Stock Companies since 1977 as a society, and is comprised of farmer members and a volunteer board of directors. Its mission is to facilitate the continued viability, profitability, and economic contribution of the mink industry to Nova Scotia.
I realize that some of you might not be too aware of the mink industry, although we’ve probably garnered your attention in the House over the last year, especially with the release of the new Fur Industry Act. I’d like to take just a few minutes to try and provide a road map to you, if you will, of where we are as an industry. This will hopefully set the stage for the rest of the morning’s discussion.
Firstly, when you look at my muskrat hat that is being passed around, it’s very different from the mink or the fur that predominates here in Nova Scotia. In fact, Nova Scotia is very well-renowned for its jet black mink. This is a very high-quality product and it’s very well respected internationally, so we have a very competitive, strategic industry that has a long history here in Nova Scotia and in Canada. In fact, it began over 100 years ago, and in the early 1930s really began to take hold in the New Tusket and Havelock area of southwest Nova Scotia. In the mid-1960s, we began to see more rapid growth of the sector and it becoming an important generator of wealth here in this province.
Sometimes it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the industry. I often look towards Statistics Canada to provide that information, but it sometimes can be unreliable. On the basis of the most recent statistics that we have from the Department of Agriculture that are primarily based on export permit data and licensing data, we see an industry that exports in excess of 1.47 million pelts per year - that was in 2010 - that has a value of $96 million. Now that value is equated on the basis of 2009 average price for the pelts sold so it will probably be a lot higher when we’re able to adjust those numbers. We’re forecasting this year, this current season, in 2011, to see approximately 1.6 million pelts that will have a value closer to $120 million.
I think you recognize it’s a commodity that’s traded on the open market. It tends to be very cyclical and dependent on such things as the weather. A very cold winter in China or Russia tends to drive up demand for the product, and of course the status of the fashion industry has an important bearing.
We’ve seen production increase in Nova Scotia since 2005, as have the number of farms. Again, it’s a little bit difficult to get a handle on the exact numbers because of the way the licences operate. You can have situations where a licence holder can have multiple sites on multiple farms. When you take that into account, today we have over 150 licences - I think it’s closer to 152 - which means there are about 124 sites or farms in Nova Scotia. The largest numbers are in Digby County and Yarmouth County that equate to about 80 per cent of the total in the whole province.
As for employment, again, it’s fairly difficult to get definitive numbers, but our estimate is it’s well in excess of 1,000 people and more likely towards 2,000 people when you take into consideration those industries that are dependent on the sector. So if you consider the economic impact, it’s significant. I’m not an economist by any stretch of the imagination but if you even use a conservative multiplier of five, or even as some suggest eight, you’re looking at spinoffs that are very substantial.
So how do we compare? Well, if you look at the world production that’s probably around 50 million pelts per year in 2010. European countries really dominate production; Denmark is the world leader at 28 per cent, followed by China at 24 per cent. The Netherlands, Poland, Finland - it is certainly a key industry in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It’s interesting to note that Denmark, which is the world leader, produces approximately 13 million pelts per year. They have a population of about 5.5 million people but a land area that’s about 10,000 square kilometres less than ours here in Nova Scotia.
We are the largest producer in Canada. Over half of the pelts produced in Canada come from Nova Scotia. We are now the largest agricultural sector in Nova Scotia, with mink exports totalling 33 per cent of Nova Scotia’s total agricultural exports. If you think about economic development, I was involved with the TEDx event at Acadia University last week and I think it was Jennifer Berry from Fusion Halifax commenting that 87 cents of every dollar spent on food actually leaves this province. Well, it’s the opposite with the mink sector; it’s new money coming into the province from export sales. It’s not money that’s being recycled, it’s new money coming into this province. China is by far the largest buyer of our Canadian pelts. About 76 per cent of the market is dominated by China, followed closely by Korea and Russia.
As I mentioned, with farms located in southwestern Nova Scotia, much of the industry is important to rural Nova Scotia. We play a key role in our communities in terms of our social and cultural impacts, the fundraising that we do, the tax base that we provide and, of course, the employment that’s generated. So the mink industry is a backbone of the local economy, particularly in rural areas; in fact vibrant rural areas, I think, depend on successful agriculture – agriculture that’s innovative, adaptable, and collaborative.
We are an interesting industry because, again from the TEDx talks, Jason Pelley, I think from FiddleHop Farms, mentioned that they were losing about 10 or 11 farmers a day here in Canada, and the average age of a farmer here in Nova Scotia is in the order of 55 - well we were talking on the way up in the car and the average age of the mink industry is about 38. So we’re unique in that we’ve attracted young people into the industry, young farmers who are often second or third generation farmers, families that have grown up in the local area, small family operations.
We benefit from an infrastructure that’s already in place. We have a co-operative pelting plant in the Weymouth area; we have local feed kitchens; and we have a disease testing lab in the Weymouth school where our offices are located - all there to support the growth of the industry.
We’re also a very innovative industry. If you look at research and development, I can’t help but think of the research that’s going on at the Agricultural College in Truro, looking at Aleutian disease. It’s probably one of the only centres in the world, there in Truro, and I think that’s something we need to celebrate and build upon.
The industry utilizes waste products from industries such as the fishery and the chicken industry. There are approximately 150 million pounds of feed that are fed to mink every year in Nova Scotia - that equates to something like 52 tractor-trailer loads a week, a significant use of waste by-products in the industry. In fact, we use every pound of chicken waste, or chicken offal, there is in Nova Scotia, if we can get it. We also bring in chicken from Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador to feed our animals, and we truck in fish waste products from the New England States. There are opportunities for utilizing waste that’s generated from the industry and we recently supported two initiatives that will, hopefully, see the development of green energy sources here in Nova Scotia.
We are going to be seeing a comprehensive suite of regulations put in place to govern the industry, and it’s going to be the first here in North America. We supported the Fur Industry Act, or Bill No. 53, because it was put in place to include measures that ensure the appropriate management and development of the industry for years to come. It will facilitate the continued viability, profitability, and contribution of the mink sector in Nova Scotia; it will ensure industry will develop in a sound way; it will contribute to the tax base of this province and, at the same time, respect our neighbours - this is very important because it will keep conflicts from arising which might harm the ability of the industry to exist and grow.
In terms of the regulations, in general we believe in the principles of regulations. We don’t know where they are right now, and certainly we haven’t been involved in their development, so we are anxiously awaiting them. We also recognize the development of good regulations does take time and that government is following due process. Regulations are what we need as an industry. They are a good thing for our industry and they would likely be tough on us - and I’m sure there are going to be financial implications for our farmers. Although we haven’t seen them yet, we endorse them in principle and we support them, and we are prepared to deal with them and co-operate with them and learn to live with them as we grow as an industry.
The regulations will make sure the environment is protected and they will help our industry prosper, but we know they could turn against us. Government needs to handle this right. The regulations must make sense; they must be doable; and they must maintain a sense of trust and confidence and not stifle innovation.
And my final point, Mr. Chairman, is many of our farmers live close to lakes and waterways, and many have cottages as well. We totally support and are committed to the principles of sustainable development, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We are confident that it is certainly possible to have a thriving mink production industry supporting families in rural Nova Scotia communities and to ensure the protection of our waterways and natural spaces that we all love.
We understand the issues surrounding water quality. We don’t agree with everything that’s being said about them, but we do take very seriously our responsibilities and the concerns raised. We want to protect our environment because, of course, our members live there as well. We know we’re not perfect, and we can be doing a better job. Many farmers have not been waiting for the regulations to come into force, they’ve already been making improvements to their operations.
In closing, I hope my opening remarks have been able to paint a picture - or a road map, if you will - of our industry, that you have a little bit better appreciation of who we are and our contribution to the Nova Scotian economy. I believe that government will become more and more important than ever in preparing Nova Scotians to succeed in a very competitive global marketplace. We welcome any developments that will help to secure a sustainable future for our industry. The long-term prosperity of our agricultural sector is very important - it’s important because it can secure a bright future for all Nova Scotians.
We look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Myself, not too familiar with the mink industry or farming, certainly a lot of valuable information was presented here.
So we’ll start our questions. Mr. Younger.
MR. ANDREW YOUNGER: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I know we’ve met a number of times over the past two years. It’s always very interesting, and there always seem to be a few more questions. I know we always generally start with some of the similar information.
One of the things that I wanted to start with is I was looking at some Statistics Canada data, and recognizing that their data only goes up to 2009, there seemed to be a drop off in mink - we’re still well ahead of any other province in the country, but there seemed to be a drop off in total mink production in Nova Scotia between 2005 and 2009. I guess it went up over that period, but it actually sort of peaked and then started to come back down, and I was wondering, is there a reason for that, or whether it’s recovered since that period of time?
MR. ROBERTS: Thank you for your question, Andrew. I mentioned in my opening remarks that I quite often refer to Statistics Canada data as well to try and get a picture of the industry; however, when you look at the data, you see an industry that only has 54 farms; you see an industry that’s only worth $54 million.
The data is somewhat unreliable, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way they collect data. I’ve had discussions with the Department of Agriculture concerning this, and I know they’ve forwarded our concerns to Statistics Canada. A lot of their information is received from surveys and questionnaires, and I’m not sure how complete their database of mink farmers in Nova Scotia is.
Certainly from our understanding there have been some changes in production since 2005, but generally production has been increasing in a consistent fashion between 2005 and 2010. There might have been a slight decrease in the value of the pelts sold in 2008 because of a result of changes in the market, particularly from China and Russia - Russians have withdrawn from the market and the demand had dropped and we did see a decline in prices, but the production from Nova Scotia farmers has consistently been increasing over the years.
MR. YOUNGER: I meant to say at the beginning, just for the record - and I already told you earlier - I apologize that I’ll be departing a bit early to deal with a constituency matter that has come up. I’ll just put that on the record for everybody else’s benefit - I already talked to you about it.
I think if you went out - and the chairman actually mentioned this himself, and I think I felt the same way before our first conversation, maybe a year and a half ago - and if you asked anybody on the streets of Halifax, or probably even in rural Nova Scotia, how big the mink industry is relative to other agricultural products, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who thinks it’s the largest agricultural-gated product in the province. Why do you think that is?
MR. PRIME: I personally think because you don’t eat this animal and you wear the animal for fur - it’s not consumed, and it’s not being worn in Nova Scotia like it is in European countries, that’s the reason why it’s not very familiar with our province. When you look at the chicken industry and other industries like the hogs and dairy, that’s a thing that they eat every day and partake of every day of their life, and it’s a way of life.
I think probably we, as human beings, get excited if we hear there’s going to be a shortage of food - we would get excited about that by the looks of most of us. (Interruptions) As an industry that is not really promoted in that way because it’s not an industry that is looked at on the street as being a growing industry - they don’t see it that way, because the figures aren’t out there to them.
Just a little bit on the question he asked Simeon on the growth, why the numbers dropped. Just so you’re familiar, I’m also the manager of a 340 Co-op pelting plant. Those numbers can vary from year to year - they might drop 100,000 pelts, but 100,000 is not a significant drop because when that happens in the cycle I’ve seen, another year you’re going to see another 300,000 minks on the market, because for every 10,000 females kept, it’s another 50,000 pelts. So when you see that drop, that’s usually a sign that people are increasing on females and increasing on males to mate with, which is going to make more minks in the next coming season.
So that’s a little bit through Statistics Canada looking at it sometimes. Their survey looks a little bit confusing to what it is really looking at, but if you watch that in the future, when you see that down - where you see 2010 down, I can guarantee you that you’re going to see that number escalate. I know, from the point of view of working in the 340 Co-op as a manager, that we see the numbers increased significantly this year because breeders have been increased.
MR. YOUNGER: In terms of that issue of people being aware of it, I don’t think you’d disagree with me, based on our previous conversations, that in North America anyway the fur industry is obviously a touchy subject - less so, and that’s why most of the pelts are exported, whether it is to China or Russia or even Europe, where there’s much more acceptance around fur. Is there a risk in having Nova Scotians become much more aware of just how big the industry is here? I’m not personally saying that it’s a bad industry to be involved in, I’m just wondering. I’ve talked to some farmers in the Yarmouth area who are worried about having people standing at the gate and protesting - or whether they come up from the United States or whatever else and protest - if people become aware of how big it is.
MR. DAN MULLEN: I think increased awareness is a good thing, and we’re working toward that. I think we’ve been cautious to not get out there that much because we’re not conflict people - there is a conflict industry out there that thrives on conflict, and we don’t necessarily want to continue contributing to that. Most of our advertising and promotion dollars go to markets overseas to develop those markets because we don’t have a market here, but in order to operate we need a licence from the public. We need the public to be confident in what our industry is doing, and we need to work toward getting that message out. People don’t realize what we’re doing, currently, to improve best management practices, manure management practice. Farmers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve their operations, even though the regulations aren’t even in place yet. Those are the types of messages that we need to get out there and I don’t think there’s any danger in that. I think that’s what we need to be pushing towards.
MR. YOUNGER: That brings me to the last issue I wanted to ask about, which is the issue of lakes and you sort of addressed it. Simeon mentioned it in his last comment. There has been a lot of criticism, either rightly or wrongly, that there is blue-green algae coming up and it must be related to the mink farms, or at least there are people who feel it must be related to the mink farms. How are you dealing with that issue? Not so much in dealing with the manure and so forth, which may or may not be some of the cause, I personally suspect there are probably a number of causes for why that is happening there, but how are you dealing with the public relations aspect of that and dealing with the residents and property owners who are concerned about that?
MR. ROBERTS: I think, when you look at agriculture in rural areas, there are typically situations where you get conflict between urban and rural uses. What we’ve tried to do is reach out and certainly encourage those rural inhabitants, or people who live in those areas, to understand more about the industry. That starts off by working with the communities; it starts by working with the local schools, particularly to make the children aware of the industry, as well, but especially with the property owners. We’re certainly encouraging them to learn more about the sector.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I didn’t mention it, but if we could keep our first round of questioning to 10 minutes, then everybody can come back. Mr. Ramey.
MR. GARY RAMEY: Like a number of my colleagues, I am not totally apprised of the mink industry. I’ve learned a lot this morning and I made it my business to learn a little bit before, but correct me if I’m wrong, are we always talking about this jet black mink or are we talking different versions of mink?
MR. PRIME: Mostly in Nova Scotia, at this time, just jet black mink are raised, primarily. It’s the high percentage.
MR. MULLEN: It would be 90 per cent.
MR. PRIME: Yes, at least 90 per cent.
MR. RAMEY: Mr. Mullen, did you mention your farm is in Kings County?
MR. MULLEN: Yes.
MR. RAMEY: It is my understanding, from what you said, that the largest concentration is in - correct me if I’m wrong - Digby and Yarmouth Counties. Am I correct in that?
MR. MULLEN: Yes.
MR. RAMEY: Why? What is that about? Why has the industry been concentrated in just those two counties? Is the rest of Nova Scotia not particularly conducive?
MR. PRIME: Mainly what started the mink industry in the Digby County area was the fish supply. People started getting into the mink, which was a high user of fish; 70 per cent of their diet was fish. Back 35, 40 years ago when I first got into mink, fish plants would beg you to come pick the fish up for zero costs; there was no cost in it. As a matter of fact, some plants were even paying you if you would take it and get it out of their way until fish volumes, like the herring, started coming in really strong. That’s what forced people into building bigger freezers and going into feed kitchens that handle more volume.
That’s the reason why, in our area, it took off so rapidly for trucking. Then it moved in the Valley area and moved in other areas where feed was still trucked from our area. Fish was still being trucked from our area, feed ready-mixed, into the plant like in the larger facility here in the Valley now, when they first started out, was taking all their feed from my source, out of my feed kitchen, to get started.
MR. MULLEN: It was also from a lack of something better to do in rural Nova Scotia. In southwest Nova Scotia there was nothing to do.
MR. PRIME: No agriculture fields in our area as far as big amounts to farm like soy bean or peas or corn, so our land became very useful, being rocky, good drainage for a pen to build a mink ranch on.
MR. RAMEY: Mr. Chairman, may I ask a supplementary. I worked at H.B. Nickerson fish plant years ago, it’s not there anymore; it was in Riverport. We used to get the heads and tails and ship them to Mansonville, Quebec, to mink ranches there; they were just bagged heads and tails. That’s where that offal went, so I am sort of familiar with that.
You mentioned about the recycling. There are chicken and fish now that the offal all gets recycled. Just on the manure issue - I guess the feces from the mink - did you mention there might be some mention that the feces might be used in generating energy or something like that? Did I get that wrong or is there some speculation that could happen?
MR. ROBERTS: No, I think you had it right. We have supported two initiatives from private interests that are looking to develop technologies for the production of green energy through the use of anaerobic digesters, composting facilities and energy biogas cogeneration. There is also an opportunity, I think, to look at some mink fat by-products to be generated from the processing. We’re very hopeful to see those move ahead. They are going to be significant initiatives there in southwest Nova Scotia.
MR. RAMEY: What stage are you at with those right now?
MR. ROBERTS: They’re fairly preliminary right now. The two initiatives are moving ahead fairly slowly. They’re looking at some significant business planning and fundraising, because I think you’ll be looking at some significant investment that will be required to get this into play.
MR. RAMEY: Okay, thank you.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you Simeon, Earl and Dan for coming in this morning and giving us an overview as well as an update on some of the developments in your industry. One of the areas you’re talking about here, the research project going on at the Agricultural College in Truro with the Aleutian disease, which is of course the Achilles’ heel of the industry. Could you explain, does it just affect the animal, does it affect the fur? Could you provide us with a little bit of background?
It is my understanding it hasn’t infected all of the farms, perhaps it is the actual concentration of farms, and I wonder how you’re looking at addressing it now and in the future.
MR. MULLEN: Maybe I’ll start just by talking about the disease itself and maybe Simeon can look at how we’re tackling it through the AD research. It’s an autoimmune disease. The animal produces excess antibodies. Those antibodies aren’t capable of killing the virus but the antibodies attach to the virus and are trying to kill it. So you get these big globs of matter in the animal’s system and then it ends up doing tissue damage to the organs. That’s the concept of the disease. It does cause problems with production, poor production, liveability. It leads to death eventually, especially once the cold weather sets in. It does affect pelt production, significantly, it can lead to cotton under fur and what we call sprinklers, which is white fur mixed within the black. It has significant quality issues.
Simeon can speak to how we’re trying to attack this problem?
MR. ROBERTS: I think if you look at some of the challenges the industry is facing, the Aleutian disease is probably one of the most significant ones. I don’t think there’s any farmer that’s not worried that they either haven’t already got it or they are going to get it in the future. It’s a very persistent parvovirus. It can live in the environment for years and years. It lives in the soil. It can be transmitted by wild animals, by insects. It can be transmitted in the air, by humans as well, it can attach to your clothing. That’s why biosecurity is so important in our farms. It has a devastating effect on the farming operation.
Not all the animals that have the disease actually get sick. Some of them are able to withstand the disease and even expel the virus. There’s evidence from the research that has been going on at the Agricultural College that there may be some animals that are naturally immune or naturally resistant to the disease, that it’s something in their genetics.
So there has been a quest to find this golden mink, the mink that does have the resistance built into its genes, but to begin that quest, it’s a long journey. I think Earl was probably involved in the early part of 2002-03, forming management teams. We were able, together with seven other organizations - mink organizations across North America - to get enough seed money to start moving ahead with a research program. We were working with the Agricultural College as a partner, and after a number of attempts we were finally successful with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency - the Atlantic Innovation Fund, or AIF. They committed $1.8 million in 2007 over a five-year period toward an overall project that’s probably around $2.9 million, and really what it involves is the development of genetic tools for the detection and control of the AD virus.
So there is now, as I mentioned, a world-respected research centre there that’s part of the Agricultural College. There’s nothing close to it in the world. It’s the leading genetic animal research centre in the world. They’re looking at really developing the tools, the technologies that can help industry move ahead and hopefully deal with this, but it’s a slow process. As you know, research quite often is an evolving process.
If you look at a number of strategies that are available, I think you can look at trying to eradicate the virus, and a lot of farmers have been trying to do that over the years. They do testing, and we transferred the lab services from the government into the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association to do that testing. Sometimes that testing isn’t that reliable. You can get false positives. It’s looking for antibodies, and sometimes the antibodies are at such a low level that it’s not picking them up, or maybe it’s picking up the incidence of the antibodies but the mink isn’t sick. It may be one of those that has some resistance.
So quite often then, the farm would eradicate the virus. It would harvest the mink and subject them to further testing, and to move ahead like that: clean the ranch, leave it vacant for a number of months - or some of them leave it for a year - and then reintroduce new stock into the operation, but again, the disease has come back. It hasn’t gone away, so trying to eradicate it - something is not working very well there in the system.
We’ve been looking at, well, hey, could we prevent the disease? Obviously, the biosecurity measures - and now I think if you look around mink ranches, a lot of them are putting in very advanced biosecurity measures. Sometimes they don’t stop the disease.
So maybe there are other ways that we can look at trying to prevent it - maybe having a vaccine produced - and this is one area that I think shows great promise. It’s not an objective of the existing research that’s being done at the AC, but certainly there are opportunities there. There’s some interesting research going on in P.E.I., looking at the development of vaccines. You’d also look at treatment methods, and again, that’s something that we really haven’t got into, but it’s an opportunity for the future.
The focus has been on the identification of these resistant mink, the golden mink. The research team has been trying to identify the relevant parts of the genome, so they’ve done a lot of genome testing and mapping, genome mapping, to identify those particular structures that are responsible for particular parts of the disease. There’s a lot of biochemical research, molecular markers that they try and figure out, or what part of the gene can we market, how that is different. They’ve been able to identify a number of different strains or types of the disease. I think it’s like eight different types they’ve identified, with lots of sub-types under them.
The disease can mutate. It’s like a lot of viruses but it’s a very aggressive one, so that depending on its particular structure, it has the ability to change rapidly in the environment and persist in the environments, which makes it very difficult to eradicate, again. So there’s a lot more work to do on the research and they’re beginning to show some positive results. I think it’s going to be very important that we continue that because, as I say, it is one of the most important challenges facing the industry.
MR. GLAVINE: I think he’s afraid I’m going to ask other tough questions, he just kept talking so I think he used up my time pretty well. Thank you very much, that was very thorough, very detailed, I appreciate that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. d’Entremont.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Simeon, Earl, Dan, very good to have you in today. Hopefully, by the time you guys get home, the sun will be out. Down in southwestern Nova Scotia it is actually out, I’ve seen pictures of it. (Interruption) No, it’s not a rumour, I’ve seen it.
I come from an area that is very well aware of the mink industry in Nova Scotia and its benefits, but also sometimes its challenges as well. Argyle has three farms - there might be four but I’m thinking there are three, and I’ve got a couple of neighbours right there, too. I do get to hear a lot about the Carlton water system and what goes on there. I look at it more as a bit of a hurdle and I think, over time, people will have answers in that area of what is causing water quality problems and how things are going to be fixed. I have a lot of faith in the Department of Agriculture in the development of that new Act and, of course, the regulations that will come along with it. I also know that the farms will be adhering to those regulations and making the changes that I think are going to be important for the future longevity of this industry.
My question really will revolve a little bit around the sites and things, but maybe more for Earl because you’re sort of in the middle of it all. What is the mood on the 340? We hear a lot from the homeowners and the cottage owners and all this stuff downstream. What is the mood of the people in the New Tusket area? What are you hearing from your local farmers? What do they feel they should be doing or how do they feel about these attacks on them that they really have no way to defend?
MR. PRIME: Well it’s not that they don’t have a way to defend; they don’t have a way to defend the public effectively like they would like. Regardless of that, answering the question that way, is that also the farmers in our area are working, putting not thousands but hundreds of thousands of dollars in their farms in the last two years.
I’m very excited about the Fur Industry Act. I’m very excited about the regulations that we’re waiting to come from that. We are farmers, I would stress, that want to do right for our public, for our environment, for our neighbours who live around us, so we’re excited to hear what is going to come from the Act and regulations so that we can better go forth to minister to our environment, and to our situations around us, that we can address them and be able to not force upon the farmer, which we have been unable to do.
As the President of the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association, I have always presented to them what we ought to do and we should push in that area but unless you have a traffic officer on the road saying you’re not going to do that, you’re going to keep down your speed limit, you’re not going to do it. If you knew this morning when you got up, and you were coming and there wasn’t a traffic officer on the road, you’re going to just push it another 15 or 20 miles an hour. This is going to help us in our industry, there will be officers out there watching, seeing that they live up to what to do.
With that I think - I shouldn’t say, I think - I’m fairly positive that we’re going to be able to change our environment and that water that’s coming off the end of the ranch should be more like this. It’s not going to be drinkable water but it will be water with a low bacterial level that will be sustainable if it runs in the riverway or waterway. That’s not going to affect this. That is the point that we’re working toward, and I mean, we’re not pressing off of that one bit.
I’ve been to media meetings in the Yarmouth area and I’ve pushed this to them. We went to one recently, not too long ago, and everyone shook our hands when we left. When we went in, everyone wanted to tear our arms off. When we left, they were so - this is the way that we’re working as president of the industry and with the industry, and the industry is beginning to accept that and to work with us on that. We’re seeing that, very much so. We haven’t got that portrayed to the public yet, but the public is going to see that; the Environment people who are coming on our farms now, they’re taking pictures. They’re telling us - I mean, they were just on my old farm site, very impressed with what we’re doing, and taking pictures of it. So I definitely feel we’re moving in the right direction, and again, I repeat, we are anxious to see what the regulations are going to bring to us so we can even better service our industry and tell them what they must do.
MR. MULLEN: And even currently, without the regulations, I assume we’ve had the Environment Act for decades. There are heavy penalties for letting nutrients go into water sources, et cetera, and those penalties and laws have been there all along. Federal and provincial enforcement agents, the Department of Environment, along with Agriculture, have done tours on farms - numerous, numerous tours - and yes, there has been the odd directive given to the farmer, saying, look, you should fix this, change this. To our knowledge, 100 per cent of the time farmers voluntarily comply. The regulations are only going to add to that and put an additional enforcement tool in place and put the farmers all on a level playing field and, I can’t help but think, give the public some extra confidence in what we’re doing.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I think The Vanguard, in either this week or last week’s edition, had an article basically quoting the chairman of the Yarmouth Water Commission about the siting of a farm in the Hectanooga area. Anyway, I don’t know the details around that and stuff, but you can just see how some of the chat over here has now sort of found its way into the chat of a new site in probably a more pristine area, an area that is probably adaptable to a mink farm and probably a good area to actually try some expansion, but because of its proximity to the Lake George water system, they all of a sudden get this churn that continues to happen. So I’m just wondering if you’re aware of that issue and maybe of the comments of the chair of that water commission?
MR. PRIME: I’m aware of the site. I’ve been on the site - not that I’ve been invited onto it, but just to see what the site is doing, what it looks like. But as far as Environment and the Department of Agriculture, I cannot comment on that. I don’t know. I’m understanding that they’ve taken all the steps they need to take toward that with our local Agriculture representative, but I can’t comment that they have or they haven’t. I’m just told that they have. I haven’t talked to the Agriculture representative. So I wouldn’t want to comment on that, but I feel that where they’re doing the farm - or this location, I’m not even sure if it’s a farm. I understand that’s what it’s going to be.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Yes, I think it is.
MR. PRIME: And the works it’s in, I don’t know just where they are with it or what they’ve done, how much they’ve complied, but it does, again, when those things happen - I don’t think only in our area, but even in the Valley area farms, there are going to be red lights going on if we don’t get regulations in place. I’m going to keep pounding on that, because we worked on that. As a matter of fact, we’re the first ones in all of Canada that started out in the Fur Industry Act. So it should show a real concern that we do want to do it right, and once we get them in, we’re going to know where everybody is moving and why they’re moving, how come they’re moving there, and that they can’t move there or they can - but this new site, that’s all. I can’t make any significant comments on it.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I didn’t expect it, but it’s just the fact that it shows - it rears its head once again.
MR. PRIME: Right.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: And my final quick question is, we talk about the growth of the industry and we talk about new farms; we talk about more pelts and this kind of thing, but there is not an infinite number of farms that can be built in Nova Scotia, nor will there be an infinite number of pelts being produced in this province. How big is big enough? Where do we see the industry going in 10 or 20 years? Are we doubling in size? What do you foresee there?
MR. MULLEN: When we look at Denmark, as an example, they raise 15 times as many animals as we do on a smaller land base and probably a slightly different European culture, which sometimes makes it tougher and sometimes make it easier. I think, really, the sky is the limit and the key is going to be the Fur Industry Act and the regulations so that the public has the confidence, when there is a new farm, it’s going to be done properly.
You hear of people, all the time, investigating and saying, I’m thinking about starting a mink farm. Well, it’s only going to be the serious ones because the new regulations are going to cost farmers more money, we assume. It takes a significant investment to start a new farm and there has to be the infrastructure in place and there has to be the feed availability to feed the animals. Those are some limiting factors, but I think, in the next 10 years, as long as the market conditions stay right, I think we can easily see a double in the production. The regulations are going to be the key because - it’s a buzzword we hear all the time – the sustainability of the industry is going to depend on the Fur Industry Act.
MR. PRIME: How much is too much when it comes to money on your account?
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Like I was saying, it can’t be infinite. As much as we’d like to have a couple of hundred million dollars more come to the province there’s a point where . . .
MR. PRIME: Yes, I know, but if you come effectively.
MR. ROBERTS: I think another point to bear in mind is that you can’t just pick up a manual or a tool book on how to become a mink farmer, right. You can’t go to university and get trained as a mink farmer, it’s something that is instilled in the culture; it’s passed down from generation to generation. Those people who are employed are apprenticing their skills and their trade on the farm, so it’s very difficult for a new entrant, although I think the government is encouraging new entrants in the growth in the industry. Certainly, we’ve seen that in our industry, but it’s the young generations that are coming up through the system, it’s not necessarily an immigrant coming in or someone who is totally new to the sector. That would limit the kind of growth potential, I think, somewhat.
MR. PRIME: A lot of farmers can be good farmers. It’s college dropouts that just can’t make it in college and would like to, but can’t, but they don’t have the knowledge to be able to do it. That’s one thing I would have to bang home for our industry here, this industry is very acceptable to hiring that kind of person, who doesn’t have a high degree and still can work and be a very effective farmer. That is, again, why it’s very important to have regulations so we can tell them how they have to do it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Boudreau.
MR. JIM BOUDREAU: I’m very encouraged to hear the response toward the Act and the new regulations that will come out of it. I think it’s very positive on your part because, as you have identified, there are quite a number of good things that will come out of this to help the industry become more sustainable and more accepted and so on.
I want to come back to the question of expansion in the province just to explore. What do you see are the things that might be holding the industry back from expansion? As we can see right now, the mink industry, as you pointed out, is very important to the rural economy. You are producing a first class product and the demand seems to be reasonably high, at the time, and prices seem to be very good. What are some of the things that might be holding up the expansion of the industry in other areas of the province?
Right now you are concentrated in a small part of the province. You have indicated that we have the land area to do it, if you compare us to Denmark and some of the other places you’ve talked about, the Netherlands is another spot. What’s holding us up?
MR. PRIME: Again, I think it’s important to backtrack a little bit here, we were talking about the digesters and stuff. There are areas in this place that we can use digesters, like in the Halifax area, and set up where some things are being set up for that now, but we’re highly uninterested in trucking product through the Valley area that’s highly contaminated with AD. We feel that needs to be done in our area, to keep this area clean. We’ve had farmers who feel this is not a very smart idea, so we don’t want to do that.
So what’s holding the industry back from moving ahead? Environment is not one that’s a fearful thing for us, because we feel with the Act coming in that we’re going to be able to work very effectively with that. AD would be the one that would be holding our industry back from developing into the Valley area in any fashion, because it’s not an area that we want to see people get into and work into this area without knowing the real educational concern of getting their farm going and keeping it very bio-secure from the Digby County area - now I don’t want to use the Digby County area as a dirty area because it’s infected with AD, but we do need to take precautions, as Nova Scotia mink breeders, that we want to keep it as isolated as we can in that area.
Things like that are going to help the industry grow if we can better learn what is the cause of AD though our college, and how it is spread, which sometimes we think we know, but we still don’t really know. If I walk out of the Route 340 plant where minks are being done in that area, which are highly AD minks, and walk on a farm that I have in the Valley without changing my boots, there’s no identification yet that that could travel. It’s not a safe thing to do; we don’t do that and we won’t do that. But those are the things that we don’t know all the dos and don’ts about AD. All we do know for sure, the breathing, of a raccoon or wild animals that get into your compound, onto your animal, live breath can spread it, the same as it does with distemper. So to answer the question, I think AD is the biggest thing that will hold back expansion into our area - but maybe there are some other comments.
MR. MULLEN: Well, feed is another big issue though. We’ve got fish being caught here in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Provinces being shipped to Newfoundland and Labrador or being shipped to New England to be processed, then we have to truck the waste back – and we’ve got chicken being processed in Quebec. So feed is going to be a continuous issue. Another issue was with JHS Fish Products, where the government gave a significant amount of money to help them export dried fish to Africa and that was a source of waste fish that we were using.
The other thing, of course, is the market. This market, if you look at it in the last 10 or 20 years, it goes like this - big swings up and big swings down. The only thing that has been changing the whole thing is China. Of course, as you know, it has changed everything in the world when it comes to commodities, so a serious downturn in the market is going to limit existing farmers from reinvesting in increased production or reinvesting in satellite farms or new farms. So that would be another major factor.
MR. ROBERTS: One other thing that I could add relates to labour. There seems to be a lack of interest among the young to be involved in agriculture and have it as a career, so I think we’re beginning to see challenges appear at the farm level with labour, whether it’s trying to attract labour or retain labour. There are some farms that are utilizing seasonal farm workers and the various programs that are available, but there continues to be a dichotomy in the work ethic between generations.
I think this is a major concern, particularly in some areas of the province where there may be unemployed members in the public, or underserviced or underemployed people, but they’re not interested in getting a job in agriculture. I think we have to look at ways and means that we can try and attract people into agriculture, particularly into mink farming, otherwise you would certainly have a real challenge trying to employ people for your farm.
MR. PRIME: The other thing I would like to add to your comment - just look at the track record of the Nova Scotia mink industry. Over 40 years I can’t recall one that I know of that has taken bankruptcy to the Farm Loan Board because they can’t pay for it. In other sectors that has happened. The mink ranchers have even taken over some hog farms that have been unable to do it and put stability into the Farm Loan program. They can keep that farm going and keep it profitable - that has happened in quite a few cases throughout the province. When you look at our track record of an industry that cannot relate bankruptcy in any of its 40 years it has gone through, I think it speaks quite loudly for itself of the stability of what it could do if it got this AD off its back. We’ve worked hard on that part, on trying to work with the college and with seeing what we can do for that.
It’s still a growing industry, even with that, and the quality is highly sought after in China and Korea. I just came out of an auction in Seattle, and in the 40 years that I’ve been in the minks, I’ve never seen such a demand and price is skyrocketing - Nova Scotia mink are highly sought after by the European countries.
MR. BOUDREAU: I just want to expand a little bit on my question. I was more or less looking at expansion in other areas of the province. One of the things that you’re saying is that you’re sort of isolating the section in southwestern Nova Scotia because of the fact that you have diseases there, and I can understand that. I think when you develop closeness of facilities, sometimes there is a tendency of disease to spread more rapidly and it’s much harder to get rid of - the salmon industry has been a good example of that, the farmed salmon.
I’m just wondering, I heard about the feed costs being a concern and I can certainly understand that, because at one time fish by-products were readily available in virtually every area of the province. That’s a concern for sure - and your comment regarding trucking costs, that’s not going down; that’s going to go up, so that’s a determining factor, I’m sure. In other areas of the province where you don’t have this higher concentration, is there room for expansion, and what sorts of supports does your organization give to people who might be interested in moving into this industry?
MR. PRIME: We brought a proposal to government here, I think it was two years ago, for a depop/repop program, which was probably around $20 million after we finished going to good repop farms, which would have put a significant amount of work in the Valley region in this area, but at that time it wasn’t carried through - it didn’t look feasible for them to enter partnership with it.
I don’t fear over the - myself personally, not contradicting Danny - feed supply. I mean in feed supplies you can go as high as 40 per cent in a cereal diet if you want to, a dry diet, and water is added to that. We do get a lot of our chicken supply from Quebec, which is almost a good supply, almost unlimited. Our present fish supply could be jeopardized with herring quotas, whatever happens to them down the road in the next few years, because our biggest source of fish is herring. Leaving the herring out of it, I don’t see the feed being a problem with moving ahead in expanding our industry.
Again, as Simeon says, it’s just not anyone around the table who is going to say I want to be in the minks and get in it. It takes trained skill, not a highly educated skill, but a trained skill to know how to accept that animal, work with that animal, breed that animal, get production out of it, because if you don’t get production - it’s the same as your milk and chicken quotas, everything, if your industry doesn’t have production, it hinges on your profitability, no question.
MR. MULLEN: There is an interest and a desire, I think, with current producers who want to expand or to go into Guysborough County or Cape Breton where you can buy 400 acres and pick out a real good suitable site. But then you have the labour issue and you’re trucking feed, and then of course most of the people with the skills and the knowledge are from southwestern Nova Scotia and they don’t want to leave home; they want to stay where they grew up. They don’t want to move to another part of the province.
I don’t think we, as an association, have the things at our disposal to promote that or encourage it. You have to kind of leave it up to the free market system. We would like to see things spread out more, not see farms close together, to prevent disease-spreading and all those sorts of things. We are thinking on those lines, but it’s going to take time.
MR. ROBERTS: We have seen, since the early part of 2005, an expansion into other areas of the province, particularly into the Valley, in Kings County, and you’ve seen an increase in the number of farms in Cape Breton. So there is expansion going on, but as my colleagues have said, it depends on a lot of factors.
I think one limiting factor is that the infrastructure to support the industry is in place in southwestern Nova Scotia and that’s been developed over a long time. It not only includes the pelting plant, but the testing facility, the feed kitchens, infrastructure that supports the industry. I think what we’ve learned from other countries, Denmark in particular, is that it is the clustering in many cases of like-minded companies and the interchange of information and sharing of knowledge that creates an environment for innovation and growth and research, and moving ahead as an industry. Although I think there are limiting factors, there are opportunities for growth in other areas of the province as well.
MR. PRIME: I think a large feed facility plant located in the Valley area, probably in the Windsor area, would be very efficient for the local Valley raisers too. That’s something that may be looked at down the road, in the distant future. That helps utilize bulk of feed coming into one place and then distributed out in small quantities, which can cut the cost of feed down too.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Mr. Preyra.
MR. LEONARD PREYRA: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you very much for coming in this morning. As I was saying to you before the meeting, it’s a real education and a very informative session to hear first- hand from you what the challenges and opportunities are in this industry. It’s been around since pre-Confederation times from the sounds of it; maybe not mink, but certainly fur. We are one of the lead provinces in trying to develop regulations around it.
I know you’ve talked a lot about bio-security, but I had some questions about water quality and other issues relating to that. I don’t know very much about it, but you said that Denmark and the Netherlands develop more intensively in a smaller country and I’m wondering whether you are looking at best practices of those countries and other provinces in trying to address water quality issues, particularly things relating to nutrients and carcasses and food waste generally, and manure, effluent, that kind of thing - are there best practices and how are you learning from each other?
MR. ROBERTS: One thing that has really excited me about this industry is that there’s a great degree of collaboration in the international marketplace. Whether it’s through conferences, trade shows, visits of delegates to different countries, there’s a continuous exchange of knowledge and information all working together to improve the industry.
In terms of best practices, absolutely - we’re learning all the time. I think there’s a real culture of continuous improvement in the industry as a whole to move ahead. I think, particularly on the research side there are opportunities for more international collaboration. I know we have a centre in Truro, but I think broadening that out to include a lot of other international participants would be a phenomenal influence on the overall industry.
There is research going on into best practices for waste management. We recently held discussions with the Agricultural College looking at putting a research chair in place for the mink industry and looking at waste management. It’s an area that really hasn’t garnered that much research attention. I think the focus has been on the Aleutian disease.
In Europe, I think you see a far greater amount of research and technology being developed, specifically around biogas and the generation of green energy. I think we can learn a lot from the Europeans and look at some potential industry and technology transfer as well.
MR. PREYRA: Is there anything that other provinces are doing here that we can learn from? I know earlier you said we are the leaders in this development of new regulations, but is there anything that you see as promising that we need to look at here?
MR. MULLEN: Not necessarily from other provinces. Three and four years ago we were in discussions with the previous government, talking about regulations and how to promote sustainability and growth. It never happened during those times, and of course the rush of the legislation was precipitated by a number of events, and then all of a sudden it was put on the fast track. We want to be a leader here in this province, and I think we are a leader. I think other provinces and even mink-producing states in the United States are going to be able to learn from us. I don’t know if you guys have any thoughts on what we can learn from other provinces.
MR. PRIME: Danny’s comment is excellent in what he said, but we do look at - I’ve made many trips, eight or nine trips, to Denmark and Holland, seeing their feed kitchens when we developed feed kitchens here, a new design on pens, how they’re working with their cage sizes, and how we need to comply to that here before we get into too small cages or what it might be. We keep a very close eye on what Denmark is doing. At the same time we have to watch - and they’re sending the warning light out to us as well - to be careful as you have regulations come in that you don’t regulate yourself out of business as well. They have put some quite stiff regulations, not on themselves, but that have been imposed upon them and puts pressure on them in the industry.
Those are just some red and green lights we have to keep watching as we proceed ahead. Denmark, if you’ve never been there, is a very attractive place to go; very attractive mink ranches, very clean and very neat. We look to them as a model to follow.
MR. PREYRA: I think we certainly got that point, that this is a $100 million industry that provides important jobs and export jobs in critical areas that we are trying to address, particularly employment and economic development issues. I think one of the things that would limit the industry is the issue of water quality and the need to reassure the public that this is a safe industry, especially for downstream users. As you were saying, this is the first time the government has actually tried to deal with those issues in 50 years, so I’m delighted that you are looking at those models and working with the government on that.
MR. PRIME: That’s why we appreciate being invited to a meeting such as this, because it gives us a chance to relay to the government, the people in this room, what we want to do and where we’ve come from, what we’re trying to do, and what we want to achieve. Therefore you can help with that out to the public, when you’re out with the public, what they are doing, because you’re hearing it on this side. You’re definitely going to hear stories on the side of the public that might be contradictory to what we’re telling you but that gives you a chance to weigh it, to look at how far these guys are from what we’re hearing from the public gives you a better sounding ear from both sides and that’s why we appreciate coming, to be able to give you anything you can ask us to point out our views. We’re not here to say that we’ve been perfect in the last 40 years but we’re here to say we would like to try to really change that a lot in the next 40 years.
MR. PREYRA: Great, thank you, I very much appreciate it, and thank you for coming.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Zann.
MS. LENORE ZANN: Thanks again, gentlemen, for coming in today. We also appreciate hearing from you directly and hearing exactly what you’ve got to say on all of these subjects. Obviously, coming from Truro-Bible Hill myself I’m very well aware of the research that the Agricultural College is doing and I believe there’s a farm in Scotsburn where they’re doing a lot of that research, a Mr. Gunn. So I’m quite excited, actually, about the research that’s being done by the Agricultural College, especially now that Dalhousie is going to be merging with them, and both institutions are known for their research.
MR. PRIME: Right.
MS. ZANN: So I’m sure this is going to be something that is on their agenda, in fact, I know it is. The other thing is that I know that the Agriculture Department very much wants to get the regulations in place as soon as possible and that Minister MacDonell would love to have been able to present you with them yesterday, if he could have, but they are going to meet and there’s going to be a consultation process in place. We’re hoping that that’s going to start this summer and possibly have regulations ready for the Fall, that’s what we’re hoping anyway.
So I have a few questions. In Truro-Bible Hill one of the research topics that they’re going to be looking at is genomics and there is a company there called Performance Genomics. I know the gentlemen who are involved with that and they’re doing some stuff right now with milk production. Have you heard of them at all?
MR. PRIME: No.
MR. ROBERTS: I’ve heard of them.
MS. ZANN: Yes, I might be able to pass on a phone number or something . . .
MR. ROBERTS: I would appreciate it.
MS. ZANN: . . . because this probably would be something they would be also interested in with the disease, the Aleutian disease. I’m just wondering, can that disease be passed on through feed at all, does anyone know?
MR. PRIME: We’re not sure of that. I don’t feel it can be if you’re not using the animal that the mink, in fact, can feed. If you’ve done that, it definitely could be, which has occurred in the past. Quite a few years ago, one particular farm that I worked on, fed their mink carcases back to their minks and they really multiplied. I mean they had no idea and it just hit them like that, but as far as being passed in the feed, that’s one thing, as I’ve commented on earlier. I’m not sure on that, even in our feed kitchens, how much of it can be passed on if there are trucks coming in and going back on the affected farm versus one that’s not going on the affected farms. So that is a hard question to answer where it does really come from or how it can be carried, how it can be transmitted. Caution is always there. An infected farm that is affected is definitely biosecure; you don’t want someone coming off that farm onto yours with their same clothes or same boots.
MS. ZANN: Or same feedbag?
MR. PRIME: Exactly.
MS. ZANN: Right. I know that in the one in Pictou County, you have to wear protective gear.
MR. PRIME: Oh, definitely.
MS. ZANN: Is that the same on all mink farms?
MR. PRIME: No, it isn’t, but in that one you have to wash in and wash out and you have two biosecurity areas you go through.
MS. ZANN: Right, I see.
MR. PRIME: But there are new farms that are being set up now, as we speak, that are going to be that way, that are clean farms that they are starting; they’re going through that same process.
MS. ZANN: To take the precautions?
MR. PRIME: Yes, to take the precautions that they don’t and some of those farms are very close to our area, of our affected area. So it will be interesting to see again how those farms, how far you would have to be away from a farm, if it is - I’m still the old school - seven or eight miles or metric, whatever, kilometres, but how many miles you’ve got, seven or eight miles, 10 miles, how far you have to be to be safe that it isn’t going to be the flow of air.
MS. ZANN: Right, and it’s a parvovirus?
MR. PRIME: Right.
MS. ZANN: I know it’s like pets, they have a vaccine that they take . . .
MR. PRIME: I just have an instinct, just a feeling inside, I don’t know, like if you watch a weather current, the way it comes around and down through Illinois and on up through the east shore, I used to feel, maybe, through storms and weather carrying up through those areas where AD has broken out down in those areas, it might carry up through, in storms, on to us. I’m not sure of that, no way you can - but it doesn’t seem to be in the western area. You get into the Ontario area and across, it doesn’t seem to be in the middle of Canada; it doesn’t seem to be as potent as it is on our east shore. When you’ve been attacked with this thing for 40 years - and we have been with AD - you’re going to bed all the time and you think it, you drink it, you eat it, you sleep it. I mean, what is it that does it? Then when your farm breaks down with it, you’re going back - what did I do? Did I do this? I mean, it’s ongoing, because you’re interested to try to pinpoint what that thing is.
MS. ZANN: Well, I’m sure the research will discover it. It’s like any major disease that the earth has ever suffered - eventually, once they find the discovery, they say, oh, if we had known it was rats, or whatever . . .
MR. PRIME: Like Danny mentioned, they’ve researched; they’ve done a lot of searching and they know what it does to the animal, what it does to the inside, how it works, as he explained to you earlier this morning. But as far as how we can keep it off farms and keep animals from getting affected is just - got to be safe. If you don’t have it, take no chances of anybody coming in from a farm that is affected.
MS. ZANN: Well, as I was saying, I think probably at some point they might be able to have a vaccine. With animals, I was saying, they take it up their noses, they just sniff it, right? Then they can go in the dog parks and whatever and you don’t have to be worried about the parvovirus.
I had another question, which was about the immigrants and workers on the farms. For instance, how many people would work on a mink farm?
MR. PRIME: A ranch runs a person to every 800 to 1,000 breeder females, roughly. So if the farmer has got 10,000 breeder females, he’s looking at eight to nine workers.
MS. ZANN: And you are having trouble, though, getting labourers?
MR. PRIME: In our area it’s beginning to get tougher to get workers, but it’s because it’s so highly concentrated there. But like I say, we run a pelting service, and that’s only three months out of a year. We employ 180 people there, and we’ve still been able to - that’s a tough job, to employ 180 people for such a short time, but we only have about 20 per cent turn down; 80 per cent return every year, so that’s high.
MS. ZANN: I would just suggest, obviously, even if it’s difficult job training, there are a lot of people out there looking for work, who I’m sure wouldn’t mind . . .
MR. PRIME: You said it there. You get a lot of calls. We get a lot of calls, I get a lot of calls off the farm for people who want work. How highly experienced are they, and how much time do you want to spend on training them? You might bring them in and work with them for a month or two months and they’re absolutely no good to you, so you are careful.
A lot of it is stealing from one farm to the other, when they hear - they’ll offer another guy $1 more an hour if he’ll come and work, because he’s an experienced worker.
MR. MULLEN: In the Valley, in Kings County, I’ve hired three or four people in the last couple of years, and they don’t even show up the first day. A lot of times I’ve got to hire five people in order to keep one, or 10 people to keep one. Agriculture in the Valley, they’re utilizing the Jamaican and the Mexican programs and Barbados and who knows elsewhere, bringing them in by the boatload. That’s the only way they can get the work done.
MS. ZANN: What about the idea of encouraging immigrants from some of the countries where they’re already experienced in mink farming, like Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, places like that? What about trying to encourage young mink farmers to come here? That might be something we could all look at, because we need immigrants, and if we want to grow this industry as well, then that might be something to talk to someone about.
MR. MULLEN: That’s another whole subject, I guess. My initial thoughts are that if the government wants to grow this industry, wants to grow agriculture, then promote our people. Promote our young people, provide training, provide incentives. Bringing in immigrants might be a fine program, but what else can we do before we go down that road? What are the impacts going to be on the industry?
I think the industry and agriculture on the whole need to be consulted thoroughly before they embark on such programs. That’s just my initial thoughts on it.
MS. ZANN: I think that’s what the consultation process is for this summer, to consult with you to figure out what’s the way forward, but as I mentioned before, training is important. You can’t just get anyone to do it. I know that there are programs in place where we want to get industries to train more people for that particular industry so I don’t see why this couldn’t be one of those.
MR. PRIME: It used to be back quite a few years ago they used to have training programs. We used to be on them to train young people, students.
MR. MULLEN: Currently I have 3,200 females right now. I’d gladly put on six, eight or ten if I could somehow financially swing it or get some more funding or whatever, explore how we can help our current people grow the industry because the desire is there and the want is there.
MS. ZANN: I think that’s under the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism actually. There are some things in place and coming into the pipeline. Thank you.
MR. RAMEY: I just have a couple of quickies here. Of course, the more you talk, the more questions come up, right? What is the knock-off rate in terms of animals that don’t make it through to - well I guess, you’ve got them to harvest the pelt, right? If you don’t end up with the pelt, you don’t end up with a good result. What is the mortality rate, normally, at a farm - percentages?
MR. PRIME: Probably a quarter of a kitten. Say if a female, you have a five-average, you’d be carrying close to a four and half, four and three-quarters through the pelting time. Now the turn-around for that, to replace your breeding stock, is about every three years. The mother, you’ll keep her in your stock for about three years and the fourth year she’s out, she’s replaced with a kitten.
MR. RAMEY: The ones that don’t make it, what do you do with them to rid yourself of them?
MR. PRIME: The ones that don’t make it go to a compost facility.
MR. MULLEN: Unless they’re big enough, come August or September; then you put them in the freezer and then take them out and pelt them later on. They’re still useful. The Chinese will buy them like crazy.
MR. RAMEY: Really?
MR. PRIME: Definitely. An old female raised right straight through. I experienced this year at the Seattle sale, I go to all the sales just to check because I’m in the pelting plant, and a huge amount of old females, you knew they were, and I say that kindly when I say that about females in there, especially the ones that we call summer fur that have lost fur. I mean, $40, $45 is – and three years ago we had a hard job to achieve that for top quality. It has become very affordable for the farmer to take it from its herd and put it in the freezer and keep it so we can process it so that it doesn’t rot on them.
MR. RAMEY: I’ve just got two quick ones and these I’m sure you can knock off in a hurry. One is kayaks - I don’t know what you call them down your way, gaspereau, alewives, kayaks?
MR. PRIME: Kayaks.
MR. RAMEY: When they have that run - well, I guess it just happened probably, didn’t it?
MR. PRIME: Yes.
MR. RAMEY: Can mink eat those?
MR. PRIME: They’re oily; we don’t really feed them that much and they sell all that for lobster bait.
MR. RAMEY: So there’s no advantage to you from that.
MR. PRIME: No.
MR. RAMEY: That was one thought I had that obviously wasn’t a very good one. The other thing is do you have issues with the animal rights people? Is that something that rears its head at any time since you’ve got animals in cages?
MR. PRIME: Not in our province, here particularly, ourselves, we don’t. We’ll have it more with animal rights when we go to the sale like Seattle. Every year I go to Seattle there are no less than eight, nine, 12 animal rights outside. I could never understand it because they’re at a place where they’re all farmers. They’re not protesting against a lady who wants to wear fur because she’s a farmer anyway and I could never understand it. Here in our province, on our immediate farms, we don’t have . . .
MR. MULLEN: It’s a global thing that we have to be concerned about, but there are two groups of people we are concerned about - well, there are the animal rights people who believe no animal use, pets, food, nothing is acceptable. We can’t argue with those people. You can’t talk sense with those people, so we can’t do much about that group.
Then there are the animal welfare people, who want to make sure that animals being used are being treated humanely and being raised humanely. That’s what we’re concerned about. Currently, I’m sitting on a committee where we’re revising or reviewing the National Farm Animal Care Council Code of Practice for Mink. It’s about a two-year process, and all the commodities are going through it. Actually, I think we’re the third in line to get it done. It’ll be completed sometime next year.
We want to make sure that - again, it’s the same as the environment - the public can be comfortable and assured that we are not just saying take our word for it, but here are the guidelines. Our next step will be whether it’s - and Europe has already done this, but to put in place some sort of an audit system or a system where your farm is inspected and there’s a label placed on your product, so that the end consumer can be assured and guaranteed that that animal was taken care of properly where it came from.
MR. RAMEY: So you slaughter the animals at what time of year? How old are they when they get slaughtered?
MR. PRIME: About four to six months.
MR. RAMEY: Four to six months old, and that’s when the pelts are taken.
MR. PRIME: They’re not slaughtered.
MR. RAMEY: Sorry, whatever happens. What does happen to them?
MR. PRIME: Gas chamber.
MR. RAMEY: Gas chamber.
MR. PRIME: No, they’re put into a box, and carbon monoxide - a very easy way to go to sleep, same as you going out when they put ether in your nose. It’s the same thing. It’s a very easy way to go.
MR. GLAVINE: I guess I’ll stay away from Simeon this time, and I may get a couple of questions answered. My colleague Gary did ask one in terms of the animal welfare, and it’s a very important question. Again, it’s great to see that the industry is being proactive. I did want to know, Dan, is that a national initiative or is it international? Where is that coming from in terms of making sure that there will be an animal care code that will be at least a basic that the industry - I know some always work for perhaps a little higher standard. Where is that being driven from?
MR. MULLEN: It comes from the Canadian Animal Health Coalition, which I think is the organization that helps gather the money or fund this process, and then NFACC, which is National Farm Animal Care Council, is the organization that is taking care of the organization of the process.
It’s an industry-driven initiative. It’s not government saying, you’ve got to do this and this and this. A lot of times - and we hope this isn’t the way it works in Nova Scotia, but sometimes government doesn’t know what’s best for the industry, or the best for the animal, in this case. In this case we’ve gathered 15 committee members, and it’s veterinarians, producers, representatives from federal and provincial governments, the humane societies, all gamuts. We’ll all sign off on that, so we know that when a document is printed, all 15 of those people have come to a consensus.
To answer your question, yes, it’s a national code which will apply to all Canadian mink farmers. The expectation - of course, none of this is written in stone, but for a number of years they’ve been working on how they will enforce this code. If it’s a voluntary code, that really means nothing to animal welfare people; 95 per cent of the farmers are going to adhere to a voluntary code anyway. But we want to make sure the 5 per cent are doing their job.
There probably will be some sort of an audit process where maybe a veterinarian comes onto your farm, goes through the checklist, verifies that you’re doing everything properly. Then how that will be enforced might look like the auction houses. There are four major auction houses around the world. They are discussing ways of enforcing this, and one of the ways is to put a label on your product that will only be put there if you have complied and you have proof of compliance. If you don’t have that label on your mink, you may not be able to sell it or you may take less money for it. That’s the avenue we’re taking.
Some of these programs are already in place in Denmark, in Finland, in Holland and different places. I don’t know if that answers your question.
MR. GLAVINE: That’s great. I wanted to know those things about whether it was voluntary or whether it would be some kind of a way of compliance required by the audit process. That’s fine.
You talked about labour becoming a bit more challenging. You are very big on having Nova Scotians become part of the future of the industry here. I guess I’ll end off then by saying, I know you’ve done very well, as a sector, with getting the loans to expand or to get new entrants and so on into the mink industry. Is there anything else that you feel government could be doing in terms of supporting the industry, an industry that is obviously now very important to the agriculture economy, important to our economy generally? Again, I do applaud the industry for wanting to do best practices but is there something that you now feel government could be more a part of the future of your industry?
MR. ROBERTS: I’ll try to be brief. I think a common question I get from our members is well, I don’t see anyone out at my farm trying to help me, or trying to figure out how I can deal with an issue, or help me in terms of how can I find labour, or how can I raise some money, or whatever it is. There seems to be a void there in extension and outreach, visibility of government at all levels.
Now I’ve been involved, over a number of years, with the Business Retention and Expansion Program that was initiated through the Regional Development Authorities and NSBI. I think that’s a very positive thing. Where there’s outreach there’s a business development office or an executive who has an important role to meet with the farmer and understand the challenges they’re facing, then signpost them and refer them to other agencies or individuals who can help them, whether it’s an issue to do with labour or whatever.
The ARCs, the Agriculture Resource Coordinators, do some of that. What I really feel very strongly about is that we need to do more across government, in terms of that. So it’s not just the agricultural rapport, it’s the RDAs as well, it’s NSBI, all working together. It is working together not after the fact, not after ACA is closed and all of a sudden you put in place an action team to try and figure out what to do. Let’s actually flip that around and let’s say okay, let’s be proactive and let’s work with our sectors, whether it is agriculture or whatever it is, and work as an action team to identify what the issues are and resolve them before they ever happen. I think there’s a real need to be much more collaborative in terms of how we do regional and economic development. I think that is a very important issue.
I think the second one is to continue the support of research and development and innovation, particularly with the AD project. The funding for that is coming to an end so I think it will be very important to see that continue. I’ve been very encouraged by this research triangle idea that is coming out of the Kings RDA, Acadia University, the Agricultural College and Dalhousie. I think we need to step back and not forget that it’s not just food and wine, that there is another part to agriculture, following up on some of your earlier comments. Yes, there’s a real opportunity there to work together and, as I say, collaborate and co-operate in helping the industry move ahead. So those two things in particular I think would be certainly worthy of consideration.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Thank you, and I’ve got just a couple of quick snappers, too. We’ve been talking about the size of farms and the number of breeding females, but really, how big is a farm? When it is time to do the pelting, when it is time to send some stuff off to market, are we talking 10,000 animals, is it 20,000 animals, 30,000 animals? What are those sizes?
We’ve got two farmers here so maybe your personal experience is - how much do you send to market every year?
MR. PRIME: We have farms in our area that send 250,000 mink to market; we have farms that send 140,000; we have farms that send 120,000; we have a number of farms down in the 90s and 80s; then you get down to the 40s. Sixty per cent of the farms would be between 30,000 to 10,000 mink. To answer the question when is it enough for a farm, it seems that goes along with our finances, to how they’re working. If they’re bringing in good money and paying taxes they will expand rather than pay all of the money out on taxes and make more jobs and create bigger farms. Some of these big farms are satellite farms, too; they’re not all on one farm.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: My final question is - because you’re the pelting plant guy, too - how much does the pelting plant do in the course of their season, of the three-month season?
MR. PRIME: How many mink do they do? Last year we did 1,188,000 and this year we’re projecting we’ll do around 1,350,000. In the last 10 years - and I don’t have that with me, but I was just doing that yesterday for the banker - we’ve increased 12 per cent a year. On that projection, we’ve increased 12 per cent every year, with mink coming in, I’m projecting that by 2014 there will be around 1.7 million that we’ll be doing just in the plant, there are other plants.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Boudreau.
MR. BOUDREAU: One of the questions I had that was just talked about here was the whole idea of the RDAs and what role they are playing, or could play, to help you expand your industry. I did get some of your comments and I appreciate them.
I think your comments regarding a collaborative approach to regional economic development is extremely important and I think that’s one of the directions that, as a government, we’re trying to move toward, so we do have various agencies and groups working not so much in silos but working as a group. It’s nice to hear what you’re saying because we are hearing it, have heard it, and are trying to listen to it.
I want to talk a little bit, again, about the whole concept of mechanisms that are being used or could be used to attract new entrants into your industry. This is not unlike the fisheries, it’s very similar and we do have a number of programs we have developed to encourage new entrants into the fishery. One of the things that is being used is the idea of loans so someone can purchase an outgoing licence and the seller actually works with the purchaser for a couple of years, perhaps as a mentor, to allow that person to transition into the industry. I’m wondering, is that something you folks have thought about where maybe some outgoing person in the industry could be used as a resource person in another area of the province where you might want to look at expansion or you might consider expansion? I think your idea of having it spread out is very important, not only for disease issues, but I think for having an industry that is sustainable.
I come from Guysborough County and, like you said in your earlier comments, there’s all kinds of room. So one can buy a tract of land down there and you can put something up where you’re not going to have some of the problems that you’re going to have in a more concentrated area.
The other thing that I just want to make a comment on is the labour. I’m curious to find out - I know labour is an issue with a lot of industries at the present time, but I’m wondering, what is the rate of pay for a labourer who’s working at your facility, and is there sort of an incremental step-up process?
MR. PRIME: You start at $10. I mean, you’re just a shade above minimum, but you start at $10 and they’ll rank up to $16 to $18 an hour.
MR. BOUDREAU: So there is an incentive to keep people there?
MR. PRIME: Yes, definitely.
MR. MULLEN: Generally, you’re not going to keep people at minimum wage.
MR. PRIME: It used to be that $10 was a pretty good wage when the minimum wage was $7, but now that minimum wage all of a sudden has crept up to $10, we’re looking at $12 or $13 as almost a base. So it’s the only way you can retain people.
MR. ROBERTS: We certainly appreciate your comments and insights. I think it’s very useful to reflect on the success of a country like Denmark because their association, fairly similar to ours, has actually put in place a suite of outreach people who do exactly what you’re saying. I think it’s a useful model that we can look toward.
Look, I think working closely with those action teams that I talked about earlier and the RDAs and the local Agriculture representatives in those areas - but I think that there’s a lot more that we can be doing as well, and I think it begins at the schools, I really do. I strongly believe - and I’ve talked to farmers just recently, and they’ve had elementary school children visit their farm. They can’t believe how excited those children are to learn about agriculture and farming and mink farming. So it begins. I think we’ve got to look at outreach at all levels, particularly into the school system, because those are the ones who are going to have a huge influence on the province as they grow older, in terms of their views on agriculture and their views on an industry like ours. I think we need to be doing a lot more.
MR. BOUDREAU: Just with regard, then, to the RDAs - and you mentioned the BRE as well, that program - are the RDAs proactive, in your opinion, or do they tend to be a more reactive organization? Are they looking at the opportunities that are there and trying to pursue them, or are they sitting back and waiting for somebody to come in? What’s your view of the RDA system?
MR. ROBERTS: My own personal view?
MR. BOUDREAU: Like how can it be enhanced or made better?
MR. ROBERTS: My own personal view is that you’re going to see all and any of the above, and it depends on the individual agency. What is important is that those boards that have overall responsibility for the RDA are actually involved in managing the operations and ensuring that the right systems and measures and accountabilities are put in place, including the strategic planning and the business planning. That involves consultation with the communities, and I think most RDAs could be doing a better job of that. I think that there has to be a more effective way to look at how we can all work together. That means reaching out, and there are different ways that we can reach out.
I know I’ve been to RDA meetings and you’re lucky if you have half a dozen people show up. It’s very difficult to develop a strategic plan for your community by consulting six people. So I think we’ve got to look at new technology, as one example, but we’ve got to find more effective ways of engaging our communities. It’s only then that we’re going to be able to actually address some of the challenges that are facing our industries.
Sometimes I look around and I wonder whether we could be consulting more. I’m sure we could. We are an economic driver in southwest Nova Scotia. We approached Team Southwest Nova Scotia but they never included us in any discussions about economic development in southwestern Nova Scotia. I have no idea why, but that’s a good case in mind. It’s the way we go about doing regional and economic development. I think the whole collaborative approach and reaching out to industry is going to be very important.
MR. PRIME: Just one comment. I think what you can do, if you’re asking to help the industry, we live in a global market, there’s no question. It’s growing all the time so with fish plants or anything set up to deal with fish, unless private money is being used, there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s people’s own business if they want to put money in and lose or gain, that’s our own sector, but if ACOA money is being invested into it, it should be looked at very strongly.
What is that going to do to this mink industry that’s worth this amount of money to where you’re going, what you’re doing? Why bring that up? I was just talking to a guy in B.C. who is a big fish dealer there and he has been selling his fish. Where he has been getting his fish is from this fish dealer, but he won’t let him have it for mink feed there because it’s coming to Nova Scotia for lobster bait. It’s coming to Nova Scotia for lobster bait because the plant that was set up down below Yarmouth is taking so much of the stuff as lobster bait it is not now going there.
Now we can’t cry over spilled milk but that’s just one thing I think we should look at very closely, as a government, so that nothing more like that occurs unless they’re doing it on their own money. If they expand more on their money is one thing, but to put more money into a plant with government money, then you’re just going out and you’re sort of shooting the mink industry in the foot. It’s just like a green like or a red light to look at. I mean, when I heard this, when I was out to the mink sale in Toronto and he told me, he said, well, what’s the matter, you fellows can’t get enough fish in Nova Scotia to feed this lobster bait? He said, I’m losing all my fish from B.C., from the West Coast.
Danny was just mentioning it can be expensive for mink feed, yet for lobster, I mean, they went through a time of $4 per pound, didn’t know how those were going to exist, and yet they’re very high competitors against our mink feed. They’re paying a dear price for lobster bait on the B.C. coast. All of this stuff is global and you say, well, the same thing - and I don’t want to rail on here - raising mink in China. They say, can they raise mink in China? Ten years ago they said they couldn’t, but now it’s not impossible to send container loads of frozen fish to China, if they want. It’s all stuff like this that we have to watch as a province, where is the fish going out? If it’s going out free enterprise, where it’s their money they’re dealing with, but if we’re putting government money into it, then be careful that we don’t put money into something that’s going to end up hurting our own industry. That’s all I say.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Leo, did you have one quick question?
MR. GLAVINE: I did have one real quick question, but I think it eludes me at the moment. I see these people and I’ve been to visit a couple of mink farms so I think I’m fine, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll give you a couple of minutes to sum up your presentation and what you’ve heard - the questions around the table that were asked - and that will wind it up for us this morning.
MR. PRIME: I thank you again for the invitation, to be able to come and sit before you people and be able to present our industry as a point that is not only the present Nova Scotia mink breeders, but also as a mink rancher myself and I manage 340 Rancher’s Co-operative; I’m heavily involved in the mink industry. My heart is in it and we’re out to do a job that you people around this table - and as you go to your government colleagues on top of this, are pleased with what we’re doing. I appreciate the chance of being able to come in and present this to you with my associates who are with us.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much.
MR. MULLEN: I second what Earl says and he summed it up very well. I guess my only comment would be that I think you all, as we plan to be, are very proud of our industry and where we’re going and how we’re going about it. We look forward to the regulations - like you say, it will probably be in the next month, and we look forward to the consultation process. That will be our next step to look forward to.
MR. ROBERTS: We certainly appreciate the opportunity to come in and the invitation here today. I think it has been a very useful session, and hopefully you found it beneficial, that we’ve been able to answer your questions suitably.
As Leo mentioned, he had an opportunity to visit a farm. I think Chris has as well, and maybe others. I’m sure there’s always an open invitation, if you are interested, to get in touch with us, and we can arrange a visit for you. If you have any further questions or concerns or issues, we’re always open and willing to discuss those with you. Once again, thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll just go on after these gentlemen are finished, unless somebody has some committee business to discuss.
MR. GLAVINE: I move adjournment.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will decide on our next meeting date later. We are adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 10:56 a.m.]