Concerns farmers will be pitted against farmers
Former Ontario agriculture minister Elmer Buchanan, recently appointed as trustee for the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers' Association, talked to vegetable growers from around southwestern Ontario about his plans to grow the industry for both growers and processors during a meeting in Chatham, Ont. on Monday March 6, 2017. (Ellwood Shreve/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network)
Farmers will continue to negotiate with Ontario vegetable processors, despite the provincial government dissolving the board – made up of farmers – that previously negotiated vegetable prices.
Former NDP agriculture minister Elmer Buchanan, appointed last Friday by Ontario's agriculture minister to replace the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) board, on Monday outlined details of how the process will go in the future, while meeting with growers in Chatham.
Noting the OPVG has been the active negotiator for growers for decades, Buchanan told Postmedia Network: “That's not the way it's going to be, there isn't a board, it will be growers of those crops.”
He said the OPVG has done a great job of negotiating the best competitive price for growers, but added processors take issue with the fact price is the only issue the board wants to talk about at the table.
“But, we've reached the stage where you've got to work with the processors to look at some other issues they'd like to talk about, other than price,” Buchanan said.
He acknowledged the “threat that is on the table” is some processors planning to pull thousands of tons of tomatoes out of production.
“The government is concerned and I'm here to try to restore faith in the system rather than get into arbitration,” Buchanan said.
Concerns were raised about the timing of Buchanan's appointment on Friday, two days after the tomato deadline on last Wednesday.
“Governments cannot pass laws that have the effect of attempting to change events that have already occurred,” Leamington tomato grower David Epp told Buchanan during the meeting.
He said growers have been “prejudiced by this attempt to apply retroactivity to the tomato deadline.”
Epp asked if the agriculture minister considered the legality of this move.
Buchanan said he was told by the ministry “they understand what's gone on and they thought it was covered.”
Epp also noted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom to associate, which includes the right to bargain collectively.
He asked if the agriculture minister considered the constitutionality of replacing the growers' representatives with Buchanan in the bargaining process.
Buchanan was also asked who was paying him on Monday, considering last Thursday he was still being paid by the Ontario Farm Products' Marketing Commission, which Epp said has “spent the last year attempting to impair the negotiating ability of the OPVG.”
Buchanan, who resigned from the commission to serve in this role, said the provincial government is still paying him.
He added he is “very cognizant” that some growers may feel he is there to represent the processors and commission.
“I'm not here to lower prices and beat the growers up,” he said. “If they wanted that, they've sent the wrong guy.”
If tomato growers don't at least get the same amount of money they got last year, “then I have failed,” he added.
Arpad Pasztor, an OPVG district chairman serving the Norfolk area, is concerned about how prices will be negotiated in the future.
“They're going to be pitting farmer against farmer . . . offering more acres for lower prices and taking away from the other guys who can't afford to grow it cheaper,” he said. “The whole industry is going to be a real big turmoil.”
He said the real issue is the amount of vegetables that are allowed to be imported into Ontario.
“So are they going to put tariffs on stuff?” Pasztor asked. “That's the only way you're going to grow the industry, is if you stop imports from coming in and letting us grow more here in Ontario.”
Sam Diab, president and CEO of Highbury Canco processing plant in Leamington, said he doesn't think there is a discussion to be had about price, citing a memorandum of understanding already in place that covers that issue.
“I think the bigger discussion is how do we work together to a common goal to make this industry bigger and stronger, together,” he said.
From what's been heard, Diab said no real regulatory changes have been made other than a regulatory change to remove the existing directors of OPVG.
“From our side . . . we've always offered that we're willing to work collectively with our entire grower base,” he said. “We've never suggested that we want to talk one-on-one with individual growers.”