Wholesalers and patrons of the Ontario Food Terminal are worried there is another agenda behind a government-ordered review of the facility.
Although the stated purpose of the study commissioned by the Ford government is to determine how best to expand and modernize the facility, many worry that its location just into Etobicoke, west of Toronto’s downtown, makes the site prime real estate for re-development.
Why it matters: Smaller retailers and restaurants rely on the terminal to access almost a billion kg of fresh produce annually that helps them stay competitive.
Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, recently cited a need to technologically update and increase the capacity of the Ontario Food Terminal.
The idea, he says, is to create more opportunities for vendors and farmers.
“Today, only 21 wholesalers are located inside the terminal. The Ontario Food Terminal Board notes that a number of these tenants have outgrown their operation and are renting space off-site,” says Hardeman in a letter launching the review.
More than 5,000 buyers come through the terminal daily to haggle with wholesalers displaying skids and baskets of produce. It’s a key supplier for restaurants and smaller retailers looking for fresh goods to fill the plates and shopping baskets of their customers.
The largest retailers have their own distribution systems. The terminal’s location is easily accessible by large highways for those bringing produce into the city, and close enough to the large urban population to make the terminal useful for the many smaller food buyers to purchase there.
A white paper produced in March by the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, representing the 21 wholesalers who sell at the terminal argues in favour of leaving the terminal where it is as the best use of the property. It says that online sales of produce have not worked, as buyers want to see the quality of the perishables they are purchasing.
The association also says it wouldn’t resist the creation of a second food terminal in Guelph or London.
Hardeman’s letter says the report will focus on the challenges and economic opportunities possible for the food terminal. As detailed in a later correspondence by the OMAFRA communications department, the review will consider the needs of those who use the facility — farmers, buyers, distributors, and retailers.
OMAFRA representatives say proposals are being reviewed; work is expected to begin in the next few weeks, once a consultant is chosen to conduct the review. A final report is to be delivered to the ministry this summer.
“I will also be reaching out to the Ontario Food Terminal board, terminal management, farmers, wholesalers, as well as restaurants and stores to hear their thoughts on what works well and where there may be opportunities to improve,” says Hardeman.
Part of a wider provincial asset review
Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, believes the government’s analysis of the food terminal is part of a wider effort to understand its assets and whether those assets could be better. Part of the discussion centers on location.
“Is it functioning as well as it can, and in that location? Is the food terminal all it can be?” asks Currie. “This is just the fact-finding mission right now.”
There has been discussion of a second food terminal in the past, in the east end of Toronto, or in southern Ontario, such as London. Other businesses have cropped up to fill some of the demand for wholesale produce, including the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative, which has been running for 15 years in Elmira and has helped fuel the growth in Mennonite produce farms.
Terminal patron concerns
Steve Bamford, chief executive officer for Fresh Advancements, produce importer and wholesaler operating out of the facility, says he supports the government a review. He also says the idea the province is set on closing the terminal outright, as has been expressed by other terminal users, might be overblown given its recognition of and open support for the terminal.
However, Bamford says if the government was to sell the land to capitalize on the asset’s value in the short term, it could have significant negative consequences.
The current facility, he says, is easily accessible by highway and located fairly centrally in relation to Ontario’s major produce-generating regions — Niagara, and the Holland Marsh, for example. Much of the terminal’s work force also arrives via public transit, and at very early hours.
The current location is sandwiched between the Gardiner Expressway and The Queensway. It is easily accessible, but significant expansion would be a challenge.
Bamford also says there is a competitive advantage to having the terminal accessible by so many metropolitan businesses. This includes many small buyers that would be hard-pressed to compete with large food companies without easy access to produce.
He adds the tenants pay all expenses relating to the food terminal, including investment upgrades. A move elsewhere would be similar to buying another house with no money from the previous property.
Some terminal patrons reacted strongly to the review on social media.
Streef Produce, a large producer and wholesaler of produce posted an appeal on Twitter:
“The Government of Ontario is looking to close down the food terminal in Toronto. It’s crucial that the provincial parliament is fully informed on the importance of the terminal and not just solely be interested in the real estate.”
A website has been set up to promote the economic impact of the terminal at oftjobs.org. It says it provides employment to thousands, takes in produce from more than 600 farmers and redistributes it to 5,000 independent grocers and restaurants, most of them in the Greater Toronto Area.
Currie adds the terminal is an integral part of Ontario’s agri-food sector. Many individuals and groups have a stake in its future, from downtown Toronto businesses and terminal employees to the farmers importing goods from outside the Greater Toronto Area. He suspects all considerations are being considered in the review.
Currie expects this issue to be formally presented soon to Hardeman’s advisory committee, of which Currie is a member. Opinions on what the terminal needs, if anything, are diverse.
An advisory group comprising industry leaders was established earlier in 2019 to advise the government on farm and food-related issues.
This volunteer-based group now includes individuals from all regions of the province. Sectors represented include livestock, greenhouse, grain and oilseeds, and aquaculture. Representatives from the food processing industry, agribusiness, and rural municipalities are also present.