A step backwards for our processing vegetable market

By MPP Toby Barrett

Government has long encouraged farmers to be organized and to be progressive.  As of late it seems the current government wants to turn back the hands of time and return our processing vegetable market to the early days of farm-by-farm contract buying.

The Ontario Government recently announced changes to Regulation 440, by way of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission (OFPMC), to replace the regulated marketing of 14 processing vegetable commodities in favour of, what is described as, a free market. The proposal would eliminate the right of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) to negotiate prices and other conditions with processors.

Tomato, cucumber and other vegetable growers have been given a tiny window to submit comments to Farm Products – in fact the deadline is Aug. 12th. One of the questions that continues to be asked is why the rush during the busiest time for growing, irrigating and harvesting crops.

The proposed changes are complex and controversial with far-reaching and precedent-setting ramifications up and down the value chain. In essence, it would take farmers back 70 years prior to the establishment of the OPVG where growers were individually on their own negotiating with buyers.

I have yet to meet a farmer in favour. The proposed free market would give a limited number of buyers the power to dictate prices for highly-perishable commodities with benefits for very few in the system.

Several processors have been present at meetings I’ve attended over the past few weeks and they have encouraged growers to keep up the fight as this is critical to the stability and sustainability of the market. My experience – we used to grow peas way back when – has been to see the loss of many processors even with field buying.

At a growers’ meeting on the Norfolk-Elgin county line, a farmer reminded the crowd what has happened in tobacco country after the role of the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board was diminished. The Ontario Ministry of Finance is now responsible for licensing and regulating the crop, pitting farmer against farmer in attempting to secure a buyer in what has truly become a wild-west market.

Today it’s vegetable farmers, tomorrow it may be someone else. There’s speculation within the farm community all marketing systems – milk, chicken, grapes – could eventually be targeted.

I have written to Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal asking him to postpone the comment period until after harvest and hold public consultations. Such dramatic intervention into the present market and marketing process of 14 diverse crops – crops that cannot be stored, or priced like corn or soybeans, is deserving of a much more fulsome analysis and evaluation.

In his response to my letter, Minister Leal assured me that “the Government of Ontario has not changed its policy of supporting regulated marketing and continues to maintain Ontario’s 21 marketing boards while respecting the delegated authority given to the OFPMC under the legislation.”

I encourage all concerned to present their views to Chair Geri Kamenz and the Commission by Friday, Aug. 12 —  http://www.ontariocanada.com/registry/view.do?postingId=22133&language=en

The processing vegetable sector is integral to Ontario’s overall economy – it provides thousands of jobs and provides us all with storable, affordable food. These things we take for granted could be undermined if the Government of Ontario turns back the clock.