By Connor Lynch
Processing vegetable growers are looking to overturn what they say is a dangerous precedent set by the province after the growers organization’s board of directors was fired by the province and replaced by an appointed trustee to act as a negotiator.
An application for judicial review was filed by the growers May 1 to overturn this year’s tomato contracts and re-instate the grower’s organization’s board of directors. Growers have also re-filed a freedom of information request that had been previously blocked by the province’s appointed negotiator Elmer Buchanan, a former minister of agriculture, in hopes of confirming what they suspect. The growers believe the province sided with processors to reach a contract price point. The growers have said that the impasse in negotiations could and should have been resolved by binding arbitration using an independent arbiter, usually a lawyer or an economist, appointed by the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission.
Interim chair of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, Jim Clark, told growers in an April 24 letter that “We appreciated the opportunity to hear your grower group’s requests firsthand. However, we do not believe that litigation will be practical or useful in the circumstances. Rather, we encourage you to work constructively with the trustee.”
Francis Dobbelaar, former chair of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, said that now that negotiations are concluded, there is no longer any need for a trustee in place. “The growers are very frustrated they can’t get their elected representatives back in. Obviously, even if there was an impasse, it’s over now. Why continue to have an appointed trustee?
“What happened is the government’s actions set a very dangerous precedent for our board and for other boards. They blatantly ignored the rules for binding arbitration. The regulations are there. It seems to me that it’s right for a judicial review,” said Dobbelaar. If successful, the review would overturn the negotiated contracts and return the process to final-offer arbitration.
Negotiations for tomato contracting this year were tense, coming to a head in December when the processors’ association made accusations of bad faith bargaining by the growers. Processors started stepping away from the negotiating table before the province interceded in March, firing the board of directors and appointing Buchanan as trustee to negotiate tomato pricing contracts. Buchanan had to step down from his position with the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission to accept the appointment.
Buchanan told Farmers Forum last month he had been appointed to save what the government believed was an investment opportunity by the processors. “There was significant opportunity for growth and jobs. I was sent here to try and rescue that.”