Fewer growers allegedly threaten industry

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The head of the body that oversees Ontario’s 21 farm marketing boards is warning the province’s vegetable processing industry, based largely in the southwest, is heading for extinction unless changes are made to the marketing system.

Defending a proposal to strip the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers Association of its collective bargaining powers on behalf of growers, Geri Kamenz, chair of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, wrote that the industry has been in continuous decline since the 1960s with fewer growers and processors.

“Ontario is missing the opportunity to grow our market share both here at home as well as in other markets,” Kamenz wrote in a letter to Chatham-Kent-Essex Progressive Conservative MPP Rick Nicholls.

Both Nicholls and Haldimand-Norfolk PC MPP Toby Barrett are questioning the commission’s proposal released last month that would end the vegetable growers association’s negotiating powers with processors by the end of the year.

Kamenz hasn’t responded to requests for an interview with The Free Press to explain what prompted the commission to propose the dramatic changes. Officials at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs referred inquiries to Kamenz.

In his letter to Nicholls, Kamenz said Ontario had 18,000 processing vegetable growers in the 1940s, but today that number is 412.

Recent plant closures, including Heinz and Jema in Leamington, Smucker’s in Dunnville and Strub’s Pickles in Brantford, plus numerous others offer both a glimpse of the past and what can be expected given the trajectory we are on, Kamenz wrote.

“We have moved from a vibrant processing community in many communities to less than a handful today . . . The proposed changes will create the opportunity for growers and processors to be both innovative in their businesses as well as their business relationships. The proposal will offer the industry the freedom to choose both how and who they do business with.”

Kamenz said processors say the current marketing structure is rigid and inflexible, creates barriers, and leaves them at a competitive disadvantage.

The vegetable growers association, which said it hasn’t had any direct communication with the commission since February, met Wednesday with Kamenz but had little to say after the meeting.

“We wanted to know where they were coming from,” said Al Krueger, executive assistant with the London-based vegetable growers association.

Krueger questioned the suggestion by Kamenz in his letter that the dropping numbers of growers and processors indicates the sector is in decline.

The number of producers and processors in other farm sectors has also dropped, he said.

This year, Ontario farmers have been contracted to grow the largest ever cucumber crop in provincial history and tomato volumes have recovered after dropping when Heinz closed its Leamington plant, Krueger said.

Though Ontario lost its cucumber processing plant, a processor in the U.S. now buys cucumbers from Ontario, processes them into pickles in the U.S., and ships the product back to Ontario, Krueger said.

“Growers are still supplying the raw product to someone much farther away who appears quite willing to pay for it and ship it back here. Obviously you can’t say the growers in Ontario aren’t competitive.”