By Susan Mann
Tomato farmers growing for Essex County-area processor Thomas Canning (Maidstone) Ltd. are working to file a lawsuit to recover their losses after the company failed to buy 34,000 tons of tomatoes last year it contracted to purchase.
Leamington-area tomato farmer Dave Epp says, “We’re each trying to recover our losses.” Fourteen growers in the Leamington-Chatham/Kent area of Ontario are affected but Epp says he doesn’t know how many of them will join the lawsuit.
“The total value of contracted tons that (the company) did not receive was in excess of $4 million,” Epp says. Participating farmers in the lawsuit have been working to determine their individual losses.
Thomas Canning CEO/president Bill Thomas couldn’t be reached for comment.
None of the growers’ allegations have been tested in court.
For Epp, the value of his tonnage left to rot in the fields was $350,000. However, “our claim will be for less than that because of crop insurance values and we did receive some crop insurance compensation for some of that. But we are not the norm here.”
He couldn’t say if his losses were higher or lower than other growers.
Last year, Epp grew 190 acres of tomatoes. He also grows peas, edible beans, corn, wheat and soybeans. He had two tomato contracts last year but doesn’t yet know if he’ll grow any tomatoes this year.
Epp says the Thomas Canning growers met with their lawyer Feb. 28 and their statement of claim was anticipated to be out early the week of March 6. He adds he doesn’t yet have the figure the growers will be suing the company for. However, growers are simply looking to recover their losses.
“All we’re trying to do is, quite frankly, survive and recover the breach of contract amount,” he explains, adding there likely won’t be other damages or pain and suffering charges added into the lawsuit. “We are not trying to be malicious.”
Epp adds the farmers would drop the lawsuit “in a heartbeat if he (Thomas Canning CEO/president Bill Thomas) would pay us because he has promised to for months. We’ve totally lost confidence in any of that.”
For this year, growers “were very concerned about his (Thomas’) ability to process,” says Epp, adding he won’t be growing for the company. He didn’t know if other farmers would also quit.
When farmers met with Thomas before committing to grow for the company this year, Epp says farmers “took comfort” from the fact Thomas mentioned the $3 million in funding he received from the province to install new equipment “to be able to handle our crop.”
In a Feb. 21, 2014 press release, the Ontario government announced the $3 million in funding for Thomas Canning for construction of a new facility. The expansion project was to be phased in over three years and contribute more than $34 million to the local economy, the release said. The family-owned company has been processing and canning tomatoes in the Essex area since 1933.
The expansion “will help this longstanding family company develop new products and expand its markets in Canada and abroad,” the release said.
Epp says for the last year, “he (Thomas) didn’t get anywhere near the equipment he indicated to us he was installing in place until Oct. 18 (2016).” He adds growers would like to get details on where and how the company spent the $3 million in government funding.
The government press release doesn’t mention equipment but just talks about funding going for construction of a new facility.