More squeeze coming for tomato growers

Provincial government wants open marketing considered for processing vegetables

Ontario’s processing vegetable growers are being hit by more re-organization and uncertainty from government regulators.

The provincial government and the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission (OFPMC) is now pushing for open marketing at the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, especially for tomatoes, after already putting the sector through two years of changes.

The OFPMC is the government arm that regulates farm organizations in the province.

Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs posted a recent letter that called for more open marketing of processing vegetables, including direct producer-processor contracts.

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Why it matters: The move to more open marketing of processing vegetables is the latest in a line of commodities where the OFPMC has acted to open up marketing, including hogs and grapes.

The OFPMC has set a 45-day comment period, announced just before Easter weekend that runs until early June, and will happen through the main planting season for farmers.

“I am so disappointed that now is the time when growers are being asked to sit down and put some thought into where they want the industry to go,” says Cathy Lennon, general manager of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG).

Processing vegetable pricing is negotiated with processors by a committee representing producers. That process has been challenging for tomatoes, including this year, despite changes to the system over the past few years.

Processing tomato harvest volumes have almost recovered what they lost after Heinz closed its Leamington plant.
photo: Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers

“Maintaining the current system poses a real risk of losing processing plants and related jobs,” said Hardeman in his letter. “Too often we have seen the crop year in danger and the future market for Ontario processing vegetable growers put in jeopardy.”

There was no input from growers before Hardeman released his letter. In fact, the growers had a meeting with him not long before the letter was released, and no mention was made of direct contracting.

All negotiations for processing vegetables have been concluded for 2019.

“The board’s position on changes to the marketing system has been clear — we want the opportunity to be involved in developing a marketing structure and process that directly impacts the livelihood our farm families depend on,” says Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) vice-chair Michael Denys, a Wallaceburg-area grower who was elected to the board in 2018 after serving one year as an appointed director.

Tomatoes make up the largest portion of the $100 million in farmgate sales of processing vegetable crops in Ontario. Negotiations over tomatoes have proved the most challenging for years, as is happening again this year.

Growers looked forward to the new Conservative government. Many growers thought the previous changes were influenced by the Liberal government because some key owners of tomato processing are well-connected Liberals.

Hardeman’s letter showed growers that change will continue.

“I have asked the commission to develop a new marketing approach for the processing vegetable sector that includes direct contracting between processors and tomato growers, and to look at options for other processing vegetables,” Hardeman said.

“My expectation is that this will encourage processing investment, enable growers to be profitable, and result in a sector that is competitive and sustainable in the future. I believe this will keep jobs in Ontario and result in more growth. To provide stability, it is important that these changes are in place in advance of 2020 crop negotiations.”

Lennon says that direct marketing was not part of the discussion during the past two years of regulatory change.

“None of the data supports what they are doing,” she says. “It is a philosophical decision that the bureaucracy has made on the right way to do business here in Ontario and they are trying to support that decision with facts. My duty is now to make sure they have the right information.”

How we got here

  • The processing vegetable market in Ontario has been in turmoil for several years, after former Liberal Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal dismissed the board and most of the staff and appointed a trustee to run the board in 2017.
  • The OFPMC had proposed more open marketing in 2016, but Leal had stayed that process pending more grower consultation.
  • Like the current situation, the OFPMC had also proposed consultation then during the growing season.
  • The trustee and the OPFMC eventually set a path back to grower elections that included a provincially appointed chair of the board, with half of the board appointed and half elected in 2017.
  • By last fall, the entire board was elected, although the chair of the board continues to be appointed.
  • Dave Hope, a new chair was appointed just before the last annual meeting of the board in January.
  • The OFPMC revamped processing vegetable board regulations. There were some changes to the way marketing committees were appointed by growers, and some new election procedures, but growers still had control over price negotiation.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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