By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Ten years ago, slightly photoshopped and keen, the Player family was plastered on the sides of Loblaws trucks promoting the Free From pork brand.
Today, the family still has those engaging grins but have changed their production protocols and have serious concerns about the pork industry.
Gord and Cathy Player, along with sons Mike and Tim, of Playerdise Farms Ltd. near Gads Hill became instant supermodels in the pork world when their family was chosen to represent the Free From pork sold at Loblaws grocery stores. At the time, the family was raising their pigs antibiotic free and the meat fit the brand. All said and done, it was a great experience for the family.
“It’s been really positive for the pork industry and really positive for us too,” says Gord. “We still get text messages when people see us. I had one recently where someone saw us in Powassan.”
Back when the program was launched, the Players had corporate Loblaws staff out to the farm for a barbecue. It was a good time. “We got to meet industry people we would never meet any other way,” says Gord, who admits he’s a people person with many a story to tell. Ice fishing is a favourite hobby and wasn’t he up at Lake Nipissing one year when he met a stranger and learned he was a buyer for Loblaws who purchased Playerdise pigs. “Well, he was as nice a guy as you could ever want to meet!”
The Players take a fair bit of ribbing, too.
“My son-in-law was stuck in traffic beside one of those trucks and he texted me, saying ‘look who I have to look at!’ ”
As far as the Players understand, their photo was on 32 trucks that traveled all over the country. As the trucks get replaced, there are fewer Player trucks but until the last one is pulled off the road, their increasingly younger-looking faces continue to promote Ontario pork. And that’s a good thing.
However, Gord is quick to say that he does not believe Free From pork is better or healthier than any other kind of pork produced in Ontario.
“It’s really just a personal preference,” says Gord. “Free from, non-GMO, commercial….all pork raised in Ontario is good and healthy.” Mike agrees, saying consumer choice is important and if a person wants to buy organic pork, then it’s good they should have that choice. Personally, they produce, buy and eat commercially grown foods.
As time has passed, things change in families, on farms and in attitudes.
For instance, Gord was a bricklayer by trade, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. When he married Cathy, the hours of a bricklayer were difficult on a marriage so he decided to purchase his first farm on Amulree Road and raise 50 sows, farrow to finish in an old bank barn.
When the farm was expropriated to build the Stratford airport, he bought a farm nearer to Gads Hill and built a 350-sow weaner operation, which son Tim now operates. In 1992, that expanded to 500 sows.
In 1994, a new barn to finish 4,000 pigs was built which is managed by son Mike. He is also the crop manager on the 200 acres owned and some 800 acres rented land.
Gord, of course, manages as well but humbly laughs that he’s just in charge of the feed. The trio and Cathy all work together and believe having defined responsibilities and roles creates a viable partnership. Farm meetings are held daily at the red brick farmhouse over dinner Cathy makes for the family. It works well for the Players and there is a real sense of respect and camaraderie evident during the interview in the farm office.
“Pig farming has been great for us and our family,” confirms Gord. “But I believe the future will look more like the integration style they have in the United States. I think that’s bad for Ontario because when you lose the individual farmers you lose another piece of community.”
It’s clear the Players are thinking hard about the industry and their future.
With barns now 20 years old, and no grandchildren on the horizon, there comes a time when farmers have to choose whether to rebuild, stay the course, or exit the industry. The Players are in that place.
Son Mike knew from a young age that he wanted to farm with his dad. He got a job on the farm right out of high school and says he learned from the “school of hard knocks.” When Gord’s brother and partner, John, decided to venture on his own, Mike and Tim were able to buy into the family business.
“I had more positive thoughts about pig farming then than I do now,” admits Mike. “There isn’t as strong a cash flow today as there was then. And the constant ups and downs of pricing are tiring.”
All three men cite lack of consistent pricing in the hog industry as barriers to growth and expansion. It’s hard to build a new barn and expand capacity without a solid prediction of their return on investment. With a new barn costing in the range of $6 million, it’s a hard choice to move forward. Corn prices have increased from $3.50 to $9 a bushel, labour issues are a concern and the longevity of their existing barns is a real worry. Older barns start to break down and disease pressure becomes a real concern.
Located in Perth County and surrounded by pig farms, it’s no surprise that disease is a threat and requires constant vigilance. “We call it PRRS county,” says Mike. (PRRS stands for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome).
Being on the Free From program – which managed pig disease with vaccines – worked for 10 years but eventually, disease pressure was affecting the fertility of the sows. They needed to start using antibiotics to treat illness and manage the breeding herd. Once treated, the Players noticed the sows stayed bred and sow litters increased so they made the decision to become commercial pork producers and leave the Free From program. “To be profitable, we needed to use antibiotics and vaccines,” explains Gord.
The farm at present is profitable and manageable and the sons love being their own bosses and managers. “We get up and we know the work we have to do. We work long hours but we have the freedom to do it,” says Mike.
Will the Players be the face of pork production in another 10 years? Their faces might still be on the older Loblaws trucks but they aren’t 100 per cent certain they will be raising pigs in the future.
Still, Gord does believe in farming. “When I was in my 20s and 30s, there was no better spot to be in than in the sun and watching a seed grow into a plant, or watch a litter grow up to be a market pig,” he says. “I hope future generations get that experience because I think there is nothing better.” ◊