The head of a group of Ontario vegetable farmers said new provincial rules have stripped growers of their bargaining power with processing companies.
Francis Dobbelaar, chairperson of the Processing Vegetable Growers’ Alliance, says many producers are so fed up with government interference they may leave the industry.
“They have given control to the processors. Farmers feel they are being thrown under the bus,” said Dobbellar, who farms near Wallaceburg.
The growers’ alliance was formed in March as a grassroots organization of growers after the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission imposed changes to the London-based Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers’ Association.
Dobbelaar said those changes dissolved the organization’s professional staff and board. He said some of the democratically elected representatives who negotiate contracts with processors have been replaced by government appointees.
“They have taken away our democratic ability to voice our opinions and access our funds. It was a crass and unwarranted takeover by the government,” he said.
Dobbelaar said most of the members of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers’ Association have shifted allegiance to the new grassroots association.
The vegetable farmers are mainly based in Essex, Chatham-Kent, Elgin and Norfolk and grow 14 different vegetables, although tomatoes are the dominant crop.
The controversy in the industry began last year when Gerri Kamenz, head of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, led a charge to strip the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers’ Association of its collective bargaining powers.
Kamenz, a former head of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture with close ties to the provincial Liberal party, stepped down last December, but Dobbelaar said the government’s campaign to hobble the bargaining powers of growers has not stopped.
The growers alliance said new regulations recently introduced have changed the negotiation process, shifting the advantage to processors.
Dobbelaar said the productivity of the Ontario processed vegetable industry compared to American competitors has dropped dramatically in recent years because of a lack of investment.
Vegetables processing companies complained their profits were shrinking because of higher electricity cost and pressured farmers to accept lower prices for their produce, he said. But Dobbelaar said farmers also face higher electricity costs.
“It’s a slap in the face to rural Ontario,” he said
Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, said the proposed updates “are intended to contribute to new growth and innovation in the sector.”