Ontario farmers who grow vegetables for the processing industry hope to find out today what’s behind a proposal to strip them of their collective bargaining powers.
“We are just trying to determine where the commission is coming from. Obviously we don’t know,” Al Krueger, executive assistant at the London-based Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers Association, said Tuesday.
The association has a meeting today with the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, the provincial body that oversees 21 farm marketing boards in Ontario, including the vegetable growers’ association.
In a move that stunned many vegetable farmers, the commission released a proposal last month that would remove their association’s negotiating powers and create an industry advisory group.
Krueger said the farm group has had no direct communication with the commission since February. It asked for the meeting with the commission.
“We will be trying to figure out what their rationale is for it and obviously, we would build the case against what they are proposing. We believe we have the ability to do that.”
Progressive Conservative agriculture critic Toby Barrett, MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk, said it doesn’t make any sense to overturn a system that has worked for decades and return to processors directly contracting with individual farmers.
“There is something wrong here,” he said Tuesday, calling the proposal “puzzling at best.”
In announcing its proposal, the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission said it was moving to a free market system to enable the processing vegetable sector to remain viable and grow.
But Barrett said under the old system of direct contracting some Ontario food processors were bought by American companies and then shut down.
One concern with the proposal is it might be the start of an erosion of powers of other farm marketing boards, he said.
Barrett said he was heartened by a letter from Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal assuring him the government has not changed its policy of supporting regulated marketing and continues to maintain Ontario’s 21 marketing boards.
The powers of Ontario’s farm marketing boards vary widely with some, such as Dairy Farmers of Ontario and Chicken Farmers of Ontario, controlling the supply and setting prices for producers.
The Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers Association’s powers are limited to collective bargaining.
It is a system that Krueger argues has worked well. If the board and processors fail to reach a negotiated settlement, the matter is handed to an arbitrator who decides which position makes the most sense, the board’s or the processors’.
“In effect, it narrows the gap between the parties because you want to be right, so you don’t want to be wrong. The beauty of it is simple, it is fairly cost effective and it gets it done before the crop is planted,” Krueger said.
The board’s strategy is to be competitive with production in other jurisdictions and not price themselves out of the market, he said.
“We don’t want to be higher than what the market is in other areas or what other growers are providing their processor for and we don’t want to be lower either. There is no need for that. We want to be able to make a good living at this, too.”
In the last three years, the association has negotiated 74 settlements with processors with only one going to arbitration.