It’s business as usual at the Davis pig farm, southwest of Napanee on the south shore of Hay Bay. Barrows, once they reach a weight of 55 pounds, continue to move by the thousands out of the pristine barns. Nothing about the sorting process has changed - barns two and three hold most of the females with potential breeding stock heading to barn number 10 near Waupoos.
For the six-member family, though, things have changed considerably. For more than a year they’ve been facing a series of charges under the Fisheries Act laid by Environment Canada. Court dates have repeatedly come up only to be postponed as the day approached.
In September, Hay Bay Genetics is once again scheduled to have its day in court.
"We hoped that by now the charges would have been dropped," says Mark Davis, the youngest of Evelyn and Ron’s four kids.
Mark’s brothers, Eric and Wayne, and his sister, Diane, are all as much involved in the farm as their parents and so each has been dealing with the serious business of the charges. A total of 33 - 11 against Ron, 11 against Mark and 11 against the farm.
Basically the charges are for "violating pollution prevention sections of the federal Fisheries Act." More specifically, though, the farm is alleged to have "permitted the deposit of barnyard storm sewer effluent in an area and under conditions whereby the effluent could enter Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte."
The subsection of the act talks about prohibiting the "deposit of any deleterious substance" if the substance "may enter water frequented by fish."
Says Ron, "the whole thing depends on the word ‘may.’
"You throw a bottle of Coke out the window and it may get into a waterway .. anything that fish live in," explaining the family’s understanding of the charges. "They don’t have to prove it’s there, only that it may be there."
According to Mark the trouble originates with a manure pit dating back many years in the farm’s history. The Davises say there was no evidence of a problem when they bought the property in 1993. Later they discovered the pit was constructed from concrete stave blocks which Mark says were in "very poor condition and would naturally leak.
"It leaked into the soil around it. The manure pit wasn’t being used anymore and we cleaned up around the pit," Mark explains. "We’re thinking that might be getting into our tiles."
The family replaced the pit with a septic tank, says Ron, picking up the story. "It was a new septic tank - we tested for two weeks with no problem. Then after that it sprang a leak."
Ron says they finally dismantled the stave blocks and did replace the whole thing with a 15,000-gallon human sewage septic tank. It was during these changes that Environment Canada sent an inspector in to take samples of the tile water. "Due to that test they’re saying we have the potential to deposit that water into the Bay," says Mark. "That water they tested never, ever ended up hitting the Bay - it stayed on our tile bed."
Mark says the charges have left his family feeling somewhat baffled. He says looking after the environment has always been a natural part of their farm practices. On a tour of the 2,400-acre farm, he points out multiple acres of land set aside for grassy waterways. "Soil erosion to me is pollution," says Mark, adding that maintenance of the waterways costs somewhere in the order of "$40,000-$50,000" every year.
He adds that more than 800 acres have been given over to the preservation of wildlife. "Much more," says Ron, "than what the average farm sets aside."
Mark says the family considers environmental protection a high priority in every department of their operation. "We soil sample all our farms. We only put manure on where the nutrients are low so we decrease the chance of leaching from high nutrient levels," he explains. "We cultivate the land before we spread manure. If we don’t do that, the worm holes will take the manure right down to the tile."
Looking after the land is part of the approach the family takes to farming, says Mark. "There are a thousand things we do - plant trees, put in buffer strips. It’s all done out of our own pocket, we’re not told to do it."
Before the Davises bought Hay Bay Farm Ltd., as it was originally named, they looked at a number of properties which weren’t suitable because of location. He says the farm turned out to be the only one which addressed their concerns about bio-security - the distance from other swine operations and slaughterhouses. Mark says being located far from any similar farms has meant little or no disease among their animals.
He says the same attention to detail is observed in the day-to-day operation. "We’re disease-free," he says, explaining some of the farm’s stringent rules.
"We don’t allow any outside commercial trucks - we only use our own. Any pig trucks are washed and disinfected."
As for the barns, strictly off-limits during the tour, Mark says visitors are never allowed inside. Employees must shower using a disinfectant soap and shampoo and there are clothes which never leave the barn. Because of fierce adherence to such measures, Mark says Hay Bay has managed to avoid diseases like Porcine Reproductive Respiratory Syndrome or PRRS which are common in swine operations across the country.
An average 2,600 sows are kept in the main barn. On the day The AgriNews visited there were another 8,000 piglets which would be raised to about 10 weeks old or 55 lbs. Approximately 1,000 piglets are born every week. Mark says about 60 per cent of the pigs are sold for breeding stock with the remainder going for meat. "We’re basically a pig farm that sells breeding stock."
Although the name ‘Hay Bay Genetics’ is designed to reflect the farm’s main business, the family agrees it’s often the cause of confusion among non-farmers. "Everybody thinks we’re some mad scientist. We chose genetics because we’re in the breeding stock business. I consider it a family farm."
Mark says the family can’t help but wonder why they were the target of legal action by the federal government. He says they believed they were operating under good farm practices, always with an eye for the environment. Mark refers to a letter which he will only say was sent from Guelph University. In the letter, dated February 7, 2000, the authors specifically addresses the charges in a discussion about farm practices at Hay Bay Genetics.
"It is apparent that since purchasing the farm in 1983, the owners have spent thousand of dollars cleaning up problems left by the previous owner," one paragraph begins. "Making repairs to manure storages, improving dead stock handling, etc. But they have gone beyond that, implementing many measures to reduce soil erosion, building manure storages to hold manure for more than one year ... sending employees to training programs on fertility management."
The letter calls Hay Bay Genetics "the cream of the crop" in its approach to environmental issues and suggests it would be deserving of an award for "good stewardship practices."
Asked if there’s a chance the charges will could be dropped at the 11th hour, John Grieve, senior investigator for Environment Canada was emphatic. "The charges will be heard in court on September 25th," said Grieve. He added that the only possible change to the status of the charges would be "if the parties decide to plead guilty."
The charges were laid in March, 1999, following an investigation by the Ontario regional office of the Environmental Protection Branch.