News

740 jobs lost as ketchup maker closes Leamington plant

By Jonathan Sher, Jane Sims, Bob Boughner, QMIAgency

(QMI Agency file photo)

(QMI Agency file photo)

Heinz Canada is closing its Leamington plant, casting 740 workers adrift and delivering a big blow to Southwestern Ontario.

“It’s like losing a family member,” Chatham-Kent-Essex MP Dave Van Kesteren said Thursday. “This company has been here for more than a century and their mark is everywhere.”

The closing of the 104-year-old tomato and vegetable-processing plant comes as U.S.-based Heinz consolidates production after being sold in June to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and 3G Capital.

The company, whose iconic ketchup is found in fridges worldwide, earlier eliminated 600 jobs across its operations and will close a two-year-old plant in South Carolina and another in Idaho as it adds workers to remaining sites — a net loss of 1,480 jobs.

The setback to the regional economy, still mired in the fallout of the 2008 recession, comes only a week after another food giant, cereal maker Kellogg, announced it’s axing 121 jobs in London amid falling sales of the breakfast cereals it makes there.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who doubles as agriculture minister, was pointedly missing as the grim news filtered out Thursday,

The Leamington plant’s closing sent politicians scrambling, some accusing the Ontario government of not doing enough to keep the world’s second-largest tomato processing plant.

But a less partisan observer says the factory was a casualty of world market forces.

The plant grew up in an early-20th century world, largely immune to global pressures, said Ken McEwan, a professor of economics and agribusiness who directs the Ridgetown campus of the University of Guelph.

Now, all Ontario food processors are struggling to keep pace with international competition.

“That challenge is not likely to go away,” McEwan said.

The Heinz closing is one in a string that claimed a corn- and pea-canning factory in Exeter and a fruit-canning plant near Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But in sheer size, the Heinz plant was king — processing about 40% of Ontario’s field tomatoes with well-paying contracts that, for many farmers, dated back decades. Essex County and Chatham-Kent have depended on the plant for years.

“They have been the real mortgage-lifter,” McEwan said. “To lose that is a significant impact to the (entire) region.”

His observation was echoed by politicians and farmers.

“Today is a dark day and my heart is very heavy for the families affected,” said Chatham-Kent-Essex MPP Rick Nicholls.

Phil Richards of Dresden, past-president of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Association, said he’s “surprised” and “disappointed.”

The closing will hurt greenhouses that produce plants, truckers, seasonal farm workers and businesses that supply the industry.

“It’s going to have a domino effect on the entire economy,” he said.

Oxford Conservative MPP Ernie Hardeman, the Tory agriculture critic at Queen’s Park, called the news “devastating.”

“This is not a sign of jobs increasing — it’s a sign of we can’t seem to get people to invest in this climate and this economy,” said Hardeman, a former provincial agriculture minister.

The Heinz plant looms large — physically and economically — in Leamington, pop. 28,000, where the company is the largest employer and even the arena is named after it. Roadsides leading to Leamington are littered each fall with tomatoes blown from the massive shipments to the plant.

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WHAT OTHERS SAID

Sandra Pupatello, former Windsor Liberal MPP:

“It’s very difficult to imagine a Leamington without a Heinz,” said Pupatello, who now heads the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp.

Kim Cooper, Chatham-Kent agriculture specialist:

More than 7,000 acres of tomatoes are grown in Chatham-Kent (worth $25 million), with roughly half that acreage grown for Heinz, he said.

“(Farmers) can go to other tomato processors to try and obtain contracts with them. Some will find innovative ways to use their specialized tomato equipment.”

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BY THE NUMBERS

1909: H.J. Heinz Co. opened Leamington plant

1,200: Plant’s peak employment

40%: Ontario field tomatoes processed there

2013: Heinz sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital

740: Plant employees losing their jobs 

 

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