Tomato growers and processors need a clear solution to the marketing purgatory into which they’ve been plunged over the past couple of years.
However, the province’s recent proposals fail to provide the needed stability.
I’ve written numerous similar pieces over the past couple of years as the province tries to break the collective bargaining power of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers board (OPVG) and its growers. There have been many actions, followed by protests from farmers, followed by pull backs, followed by new proposals.
The board and most staff of the OPVG were dismissed almost two years ago and replaced by a trustee and eventually an appointed board of directors, which ran the organization until the board became fully elected again this fall (other than the chair).
Both Liberal and Conservative governments have taken on the board in an attempt to give more marketing power to processors.
Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) says that exports are down and opportunities are being wasted. However, processing tomato production has continued to climb and has almost reached the levels achieved before the dominant processor in the sector, Heinz, closed its plant in Leamington in 2013. Something is working.
Both sides in the dispute must realize that the comeback in processing tomato volume can be attributed to resilient producers efficiently growing tomatoes, and processors continuing to find new domestic and export demand. This is especially true for Highbury Canco, which bought the Leamington plant and continues to expand its processing business from that plant, including for Heinz finished products.
The processing vegetable sector is showing significant potential and it is profitable for farmers and processors.
There’s no doubt the far south end of Ontario is one of the best places to grow tomatoes and there are growers who are innovative enough to stay competitive in a world market.
Indeed the formula by which processing tomato pricing has been negotiated is based on the price in California, which automatically ensures Ontario tomatoes are competitive. If they’ve been woefully uncompetitive there would be no tomatoes grown for processing here. The processors say the inefficiency is in the collective bargaining system.
The current system works. However, if one party, the processors, refuse to use it, then there’s a tough impasse to be broken.
The most recent proposal by the province won’t do that. It’s a mushy attempt to create a middle road, which would allow producers to vote in a secret ballot whether they want to negotiate with processors directly, or collectively have a third-party adjudicator negotiate for them. The processors would have significant power over who makes up that third party adjudicator — it certainly won’t be the OPVG — and that means it’s highly unlikely that the test will be met to use the third party. It’s an unknown, but I expect the end result will be de facto open marketing.
It would have been better to have just quashed the OPVG’s marketing powers and moved on. That would have provided more clarity and ease of understanding to the process, instead of trying to find a mushy middle ground.
The fighting has been tough and dirty at times, including an anonymous smear campaign against a respected farm leader and an attempt to strip his family’s ability to grow tomatoes.
It’s obvious that the province, and the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, which regulates marketing boards in the province, are determined to kill the collective marketing of processing tomatoes. This is the third time that a new regime has been proposed over the past couple of years and each time the proposal is more convoluted.
Someone needs to take a leadership role and open up the market. That’s the end game for the province, the OFPMC and the processors. Why prolong it and create market uncertainty?
Will we still have a processing tomato sector in Ontario after all this settles down? If the processors are smart, we will. We have growers who have shown that they can adapt and compete — look at the move to drip irrigation and the drainage and water control innovations adopted to make that happen — but they have to be able to make a good profit to justify investing in tomato equipment. Southern Ontario has the climate and the soil, as well as a history of processors that have been creative about finding markets, especially in Canada. They need to be better about finding markets around the world.
But first clarity on marketing is needed.