By Connor Lynch
SIMCOE — On April 26, hog farmer Benjamin Stein, of Langton in Norfolk County, found out he would never again be farming livestock.
The 28-year-old came to the end of a heart-wrenching journey through the legal system that started over a year ago. In a Simcoe court on April 26, he learned that he was banned for life from caring for animals as a farmer, fined $10,000 (payable to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), put on probation for two years, and the OSPCA can visit him where he’s living anytime they like, unannounced, for the next 10 years. The sentence was a joint submission, agreed upon ahead of time by both the prosecution and defence and will not be appealed.
Rightly or wrongly, the OSPCA’s mandate is protecting animals, not protecting people. They will pursue charges in defence of animals with the same zeal the Crown would for people. “We are pleased that today’s sentencing includes a lifetime prohibition on owning animals,” said OSPCA senior inspector Bonnie Bishop in a news release. “That’s a critical step in protecting animals from this individual in the future.”
But animals never needed to be protected from Stein before. A pre-sentence report detailed Stein’s history growing up and included interviews with his wife and parents, highlighting a family history of good farming practices and a reputation for being top producers. Justice of the peace Barry Quinn locked up the report, calling it confidential. He told the court, according to the London Free Press, that some animal activists attending the trial “may have wanted Mr. Stein to be dealt with in a much harsher way,” but “he understands where he went wrong,” and has “mental health issues to deal with.”
Said Quinn: “There’s nothing the court can do (to) take away what’s happened.”
Stein’s difficulties go back a long way. According to his lawyer, Ron Ellis, Stein believes he’s struggled with depression since he was eight years old. It wasn’t addressed until he was a teenager.
As an adult, his life seemed to be on the track any farmer would want: Married, one child born and working on the family farm.
But life is never without challenges. The birth of his first child (the Steins have two) came with his wife suffering a bout of postpartum depression. Stein sought help, speaking to a counsellor in London, an hour’s drive from the barn. But there wasn’t much of a connection, and Stein stopped going after a few visits.
An electrical fire in September 2016 compounded his issues. It mostly damaged one room and the roof of the barn. As Stein was dealing with his insurance company, there was a leak of toxic ammonia from the manure storage on the farm. It killed many of his hogs, and sent him on a downward spiral.
Complaints eventually led to an OSPCA investigation in February 2017. Investigators found over 1,000 dead and dying hogs. The OSPCA cut open the sides of the barn to let the smell escape. Some of the living hogs had survived by eating the dead. One inspector fell through a grate in the floor and ended up waist-deep in water saturated with animal corpses and waste.
Ontario Pork was contacted by Stein’s family and sent staff, including a veterinarian, down to the barn to help with the cleanup and offer support where they could, said board chair Eric Schwindt. When asked if the severity of the sentence was necessary, Schwindt said Ontario Pork had to stand by the sentence, as it was jointly prepared and agreed upon by the two people most familiar with the details of the case, the defence and the prosecution.
Once among the “Rolls Royce of pork producers,” in the province, Stein was suddenly facing numerous animal cruelty charges his lawyer Ron Ellis said. Stein planned to kill himself the day inspectors arrived. He was found with a shotgun in hand, Ellis said.
A hog producer two hours north offered sympathy for Stein. “That could’ve been me,” said Stewart Skinner, a hog producer at Listowel. It nearly was. Skinner is a sixth-generation farmer. His family has worked the land since 1859. In 2012, Skinner was in a hog barn, planning to hang himself.
Skinner had rejoined the family farm after going to university. His return home to the farm meant an expansion, starting up a second sow herd. It did not go well. No stranger to depression, like Stein, Skinner’s latent issues were magnified by circumstances.
Sows refused to eat while lactating. Hog prices dropped just as feed prices shot up. By December, he was planning how to end his life. In the barn, he paused and called his parents. “You need to get to the barn real quick. I’m in a very bad place.”
Skinner’s father took over the responsibilities with the herd, and Skinner didn’t work at the farm for a year. In Stein’s case, he also worked on the family farm but the one infected barn was separated from the others and was Stein’s responsibility.
Recalled Skinner: “When I finally did reach out to my parents, it was abundantly clear that I could’ve lost everything, and it wouldn’t have impacted the love they have for me.”
For many farmers, the resistance to seek help is internal. “I have a good friend who’s dealing with some issues,” Skinner said. “He’s been resistant. He says it’s only sometimes. Sometimes I fight with myself. I say ‘I don’t need to go to see a therapist, I can deal with it tomorrow.’”
In rural areas, the hurdles pile up. A farmer who overcomes his internal resistance to seeking help may find there’s none to be had. “Services in rural areas are abysmal,” said Skinner. Community-organized efforts are having more success than government, Skinner said. “As someone who’s worked in government, I’ve become somewhat cynical of their ability to solve problems.”
Therapy isn’t like other medicine, however. Skinner had to see three different therapists before he found one that he could connect with. Stein never ended up connecting to the one he saw.
The case of Stein is a difficult one. “As livestock producers, we do have a responsibility to care for our animals,” Skinner said, adding that Stein’s case and his own are examples of “why farmers need to be able to get help before we get too far.”
He added: “I know my journey could’ve ended up in that place. I would’ve hoped that if it did, people would be able to forgive and to help.”
As for Stein, he is again in counselling, his lawyer Ron Ellis said. He is broke and the bank is selling his farm. He has “significant” civil litigation still before the courts. “There won’t be any money left for him,” Ellis said. As terrible as the sentence is, it could’ve been much worse, said Ellis. Without the mitigating factors involved, Stein would’ve faced serious jail time, Ellis said.
“I’m very, very sorry that this did happen,” Stein told the court the day he was sentenced. He broke down in tears as he explained his struggles. Said Ellis: “I think anybody with a heart in that room was tearful.”
The OSPCA still wants its $10,000.