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Ag minister comes to aid of vegetable growers

By John Miner, The London Free Press

Ontario’s agriculture minister has slammed the brakes on a proposal that would have stripped London-region vegetable farmers of their ability to bargain collectively with food processors.

In a move that drew praise from both farmers and opposition MPPs, Jeff Leal issued a directive Wednesday to the powerful Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission that halts the commission from changing existing regulations for the vegetable processing industry, based largely in Southwestern Ontario.

“We want to make sure it is an open, transparent, co-operative, collaborative process going forward,” Leal said in an interview.

Leal ordered the commission refrain from making any regulatory changes until there has been a “fulsome public consultation and engagement process.”

The cabinet-appointed Farm Products Marketing Commission, which oversees Ontario’s 21 marketing boards, stunned vegetable farmers earlier this summer when it posted a proposal to eliminate the negotiating powers of the London-based Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers’ association and move to what it called a free-­market system.

Farmers and other parties had until last Friday to comment. The commission said it planned to change the regulations by mid-September in time for next year’s growing season.

Representatives of the vegetable growers’ association said their group wasn’t consulted before the commission made its move in the middle of the growing season.

The head of the commission, Geri Kamenz, defended the proposal in a letter to Rick Nicholls, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, in which Kamenz said the industry was headed for extinction under the current system that frustrated processors.

Although Kamenz is the designated spokesperson for the commission, he hasn’t responded to repeated media requests to explain his position. Earlier this year Kamenz boasted to a meeting of Ontario Egg Farmers that it was his job to keep issues out of the media while making sure the agriculture minister and cabinet didn’t have to get their hands dirty.

Kamenz did not respond Wednesday to a Free Press request for comment.

Leal said Wednesday he made it clear in his directive to the commission that if there are any changes to regulations, they would be consistent with the needs of both producers and processors and the Liberal government’s push to create 120,000 agriculture related jobs by 2020. He said he also made it clear the government supports a regulated marketing system.

“I chose to issue the directive today because I believe it is very important the commission, in considering its course of action, is informed of the government’s perspective sooner rather than later, before it had undertaken a substantial amount of work and completed its deliberations.”

Leal directed the commission to produce a detailed economic analysis of the industry’s competitiveness and opportunities for growth to support any proposed amendments.

Progressive Conservative agriculture critic Toby Barrett praised Leal’s action.

“This is the way democracy is supposed to work. This is quite heartening,” said Barrett who has lobbied for more time for growers to respond to the commission’s proposal.

Leamington-area tomato grower David Epp, who has said he will walk away from the industry if the association loses its negotiating powers with processors, said he was thankful for the minister’s directive.

“This is welcome news,” he said.

jminer@postmedia.com

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