Tomato processors see red, move to kibosh spring planting if growers continue to fix price

MITCHELL — Ontario’s tomato troubles just boiled over.

Companies that process over 50 percent of Ontario’s commercial tomato harvest vow not to contract with seedling producers for spring planting — jeopardizing next year’s crop — until recommendations by the province’s independent Farm Products Marketing Commission are implemented.

The processors are seeing red because the Commission’s June 28 recommendation — that tomato growers be stripped of their power to set prices — was stayed Aug. 17 by Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal.

Seven days after Leal’s intervention, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Processors Association (OFVPA) pointedly asserts in their Dec. 21 announcement, the tomato growers hired Premier Kathleen Wynne’s former chief of staff for their organization. (The OFVPA issued a correction on that fact, after originally claiming the individual was chief of staff to Leal.)

Two of the province’s three largest tomato processors, Sun-Brite Foods and Highbury Canco,  complain that the status quo is untenable.

“After years of thorough review, the Commission recognized that the way that vegetables are marketed in Ontario needed to change,” said Sam Diab, President and CEO of Highbury Canco. “This was not an easy decision.”

“The current system is not economically sustainable” said John Iacobelli, CEO of Sun-Brite Foods.

The processors say they have advised seedling tomato growers they won’t place orders to plant the 2017 crop. And that’s on top of a 100,000-ton cutback on harvested tomatoes for processing the processors announced last week.

The cutback in orders will be felt first among seedling producers who normally receive contracts in February and early March, according to the OFVPA, whose president, Karl Evans, accuses the “growers’ cartel” of endangering “the jobs and economic health” of southwestern Ontario communities, as well as “the livelihood of their own growers.”

Said Evans in the press release: “We have been open with the Minister, the Commission and the growers that we will not negotiate 2017 contracts under the current predatory system. There are other processors who will be announcing their decision early in the new year.”