Listowel pork couple employ 15, supply organic, conventional markets
GUELPH — Stewart Skinner and his wife Jessica Kelly grew up on hog farms. They met as volunteers on the Ontario Pork ‘pork mobile’ at the Royal Winter Fair, years before earning their masters degrees in agriculture economics at the University of Guelph.
In 2015, the couple took their own leap into the pig industry by launching Imani Farms Ltd. — named after the Swahili word for ‘faith’ — at the Listowel farm where Skinner was raised. Their efforts as specialty hog producers — sending 25,000 animals to market each year — recently earned Skinner and Kelly the title of Ontario’s 2023 Outstanding Young Farmers.
They produce hogs for the organic, certified humane and conventional markets. They also cash-crop 167 acres and employ 15 people to take care of their pigs at both owned and rented farrow-to-finish facilities. About half of Imani’s output relies on purchasing weaner piglets from a number of Mennonite suppliers.
Skinner and Kelly finished ahead of Derek and Jen Van Dieten of Van Dieten Dairy Farms in Seaforth for the provincial title.
Skinner is also a well-known farm writer and advocate for farmer mental health. Farmers Forum caught up with Skinner to discuss everything farming.
Q: What was the best advice you ever received as farm owners?
A: “One of the pieces of advice we got early on … was about those rules that just don’t make sense but we still have to make a bureaucrat happy somewhere. The advice I got from somebody who had done niche pork production for a long time, a long-time certified organic producer, was: ‘You need to figure out how to work within the book [of regulations] versus trying to understand the book.’
“It helped to kind of put a box around what we were trying to do. We want to bring the principles of commodity production, which is low cost, high health, and do things incredibly efficiently. But do that where we are also meeting the rules of the (specialty) program that we were producing for. And that was kind of our bargain. If we were going to get a stable price for our pigs, we needed to go above and beyond. That really helped us early on to design systems and helped us on our quest to design a niche production system.”
Q. What was the best innovation you introduced on the farm?
A. “Rediscovering old husbandry tricks, and challenging some of the long-held assumptions from the commercial side. We do manage in a slightly more holistic manner. We learned the hard way it doesn’t make sense to pressure-wash-out certain barns in the wintertime. It’s better to have a warm and dirty barn than a cold, wet and clean barn.
“That’s not an innovation so much as understanding and not being rigid in how we do things. One of the most impactful things we’ve done … was updating a traditional old order Amish tail-biting cure. We dip our pigs’ (undocked) tails in a mixture of vegetable oil, food-grade rubbing alcohol and cayenne pepper. We don’t have to use it very often, but if we ever have tailbiting as an issue, you can stop an outbreak pretty much overnight.”
Q. What was the worst business decision you ever made?
A. “I think our biggest oversight is thinking that the speciality pork market was completely disjointed from the commodity pork market. We’ve learned the hard lesson over the last year, when the commodity hog sector has been under pressure, that our hog is still very much connected to the commodity hog market because there’s no premium being paid for certified organic pork hocks or ears or blood or other offcuts. Demand for certain cuts on our pigs is very, very strong, but the challenge is … the overall carcass. It’s a big struggle right now for the packer to pay what it costs to raise a specialty hog because of how out of whack specialty values have gotten with commodity values…. We have this very weird phenomenon where certain parts of the pig carcass are almost a price setter, but then the rest of it is a price taker. Those two markets don’t talk.”
Q. Last year, you wrote in the Canadian Hog Journal that “things are not fine” in the swine industry. What is your view of the industry now?
A. “I think the Canadian hog industry is such a perfect example of Canada as a whole right now. We have an incredible amount of promise. We could be doing so much more. We’ve got untapped economic potential coming out the ying-yang. But we have no vision, no unity in terms of where we’re going…. It’s Ontario versus Quebec versus the West and the sad thing is, the Canadian hog producer produces the most cost effective pigs in the world…. By trade, I was trained as an economist and I still believe in capitalism, and generally if you are the lowest-cost producer, you should be able to sell your product in that global market.
“My wife and I spent a lot of time in the Northern Rift Valley of Kenya, working with farmers there. Pork consumption in Kenya is going through the roof… It’s true: When people get more money, the first thing they do is start eating meat, and in a lot of places in the world, beef isn’t that good … so pork meat is taking off, and instead of Canada owning that space, owning that new business, we’re not there. The Europeans are the only ones in that part of the world right now. The Americans are eating our lunch right now in Japan.”