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Fight Over Province’s Tomato Production Grows Ugly: Wells

And here Kathleen Wynne thought the Hydro file was her biggest headache.

The premier should cast her gaze down toward the soon-to-be-sunny climes of Ontario’s tomato growing region while there’s still some slim chance a bloody red mess can be put right.

The marketing board has been fired. A trustee has been named. Allegations of racial bias are flying. The happy outcome in the wake of Heinz packing up in Leamington seems a distant memory. A group of farmers has filed a statement of claim against Thomas Canning seeking $2.9 million for breach of contract. It’s ugly.

Readers of this column recall the fracas last summer when the province’s Farm Products Marketing Commission announced changes to Regulation 440, calling an end to the tomato price contracts negotiated by the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG).

That move lit a firestorm among tomato growers who feared an imbalance of pricing power in favour of processors. In August, it looked as though the Wynne government at least understood that the lack of transparency and consultation around effectively killing the marketing board in an instant reflected badly. Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal called a halt to the unravelling and in an interview with the Star said all-party engagement was paramount. “This really is a partnership between producers, processors and ultimately the consumers of Ontario who appreciate high-quality food on their table each and every day,” he said.

Leal ordered the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission to undertake what he described as a thorough economic analysis of the proposal. Angry growers expressed relief that there would at least be due process. That analysis has yet to land.

Fast forward to last week and what the ministry of agriculture describes as an “impasse” in negotiations between OPVG and the three processors chosen to negotiate terms of this year’s contract: Conagra, Sun-Brite Foods and Highbury Canco, the company that took over tomato processing in the old Heinz plant.

On Friday the OPVG board was turfed and ordered to clear out. Former agriculture minister Elmer Buchanan has been appointed trustee for the growers group. “It is apparent that the industry has reached a critical point where it appears that rational and constructive dialogue amongst stakeholders is no longer possible,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Greg Meredith said in a note to members.

“The impasse was that the processors did not come to the table,” says Dave Epp at Lycoland Farms. “All three did not come on the final day,” on March 1, the tomato deadline. “Highbury, who was driving this agenda, did not participate at all.”

Highbury CEO Sam Diab confirms that he did not bring his company to the table. “It was not an impasse in negotiations,” Diab says. “There were no negotiations between us and the OPVG.” Diab goes on to describe what he says have been ongoing challenges with OPVG, a “deteriorating relationship” that culminated in Highbury requesting “an organization we could negotiate with without fear or bias.”

That bias, Diab believes, is made apparent in a February email sent to one grower that refers to the tomato profits being earned by “Wynne’s East Indian friends,” which has been taken to mean Highbury co-owner Pradeep Sood. “When we received a copy of that letter, what it did for me is to put together all the pieces and all of the things we’ve been dealing with for the last three years,” Diab says. “A lot of the treatment that in my opinion was biased toward us. . . We wrote a letter to the minister’s office and asked for some help to fund a solution where we could negotiate our requirements without having to work through this board.”

Those allegations are serious. Yet a wholesale rout of the board seems unusual. “The agenda here is not the 2017 season,” Dave Epp says. “The agenda here is to remove orderly marketing, remove collective bargaining from producers.”

Some of those producers are still hurting from last year when, as it’s alleged in a statement of claim filed Monday, Thomas Canning, a processor based in Maidstone, accepted only a portion of contracted tomatoes, leaving a group of farmers badly out of pocket. Bill Thomas, company CEO, could not be reached for comment. In 2014, Thomas Canning received $3 million in provincial funding to help it pursue a global expansion strategy.

That’s a key point. The premier has made her intent known to boost the brand and profile of Ontario agriculture. That’s not going to happen, at least not well, unless all parties are working together.

jenwells@thestar.ca

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