By Connor Lynch
WALLACEBURG — The man who called himself “the cleaner” for the province on agriculture issues made a mess of this one.
Geri Kamenz, the chair of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, made a surprise announcement last summer in the middle of harvest that he was ending the collective bargaining power of the province’s 450 vegetable growers who are members of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers organization.
Growers responded with outrage, starting a war of words between the growers and the processors. Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal heeded calls from growers to delay the commission’s plan and ordered it to consult with growers more thoroughly before reaching a decision. Kamenz announced his retirement last year, shortly after being reappointed as chair.
Taking away collective bargaining was “a bad decision based on one-sided information,” said chair of the growers organization, Francis Dobbelaar, who grows 130 acres of tomatoes and cucumbers at Wallaceburg. “Where did the commission get the data from? The processors. They didn’t seek the growers’ input.”
Dobbelaar is cautiously optimistic now that the commission will reverse its decision in spite of processor pressure to disband collective bargaining.
“Once it was clear it needed more analysis, the minister stepped in,” Dobbelaar said, adding that if a new decision “is going to be based on evidence, the evidence supports collective bargaining. If it’s a decision that will be based on politics, well, God knows. If they ever take away our collective bargaining we’re pretty much done.”
The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Processors Association went after the growers’ organization in December with all guns blazing. “A major barrier to maintaining and growing processing jobs is a small cartel — directors of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, who have the right to unilaterally impose terms and conditions on the vegetable processing sector,” said the processor association president Karl Evans. “This has resulted in several plant closings, costing over 1,000 jobs. This cartel has been antagonistic to any investment policies or strategies to grow jobs.”
“Absolutely not,” Dobbelaar shot back in an interview with Farmers Forum. “(Price agreements) have either been agreed to or gone to arbitration.”
Third-party arbitration, from someone appointed by the commission, keeps the industry honest, he said.
Dobbelaar acknowledged that processors may not have it any easier than growers but “collectively, they’re a bunch of corporations working together to undermine the collective bargaining of farmers. It’s ludicrous. And yes, they’ll say whatever they have to.”
Highbury Canco CEO Sam Diab accused Dobbelaar of delaying negotiations around Christmas by going moose hunting for two weeks. Dobbelaar said that not only had he informed the processors ahead of time that he was going moose hunting, but they had given the OK for him to take the trip.
The processors have now threatened not to contract in 2017 under what they call the “current predatory system.”
The processors said they told seedling tomato growers that the processors, representing over 50 % of total commercial tomato processing acreage, would “not be proceeding with any orders for seed planting.”
“What’s the reality of that?” said Dobbelaar. “The last time they said that they actually increased tonnage and contracts just that season. The real acid test is when they contract. Maybe it’s a political ploy. It certainly seems that way.”
A five-year memorandum signed last year is further proof that the processing industry is simply seizing an opportunity to cut costs by shifting them onto farmers, he said, rather than attacking any systemic unfairness in Ontario’s system. “At the time they said the memorandum was the best thing that ever happened to the industry because you’d get a predictable price going forward,” he said.
“They’re worried about Trumpism,” Dobbelaar said. “They’re worried about the higher cost of hydro. They’re worried about higher minimum wages and they want the farmer to offset that. The only place they can push down on is the farmer.”
But Dobbelaar said that farmers have nowhere to get pushed and no corners that can be cut. For Strathroy vegetable grower Doug Skinner, collective bargaining is needed because vegetable growers have a highly perishable product, with some being only viable for a week. “These vegetables are not a commodity. They can’t sit on a truck or a shelf for two or three weeks while someone makes a decision.”
Thamesville tomato grower Peter Jennen told Farmers Forum that if the growers’ bargaining power is removed, growers will leave the industry as product price ratchets downward.
“I’m hoping we can find some common ground (with processors),” he said. “We want to play ball and we want the processors to be profitable.”
Many growers believe that the processors should be pushing back on chain stores, rather than squeezing the farmer. Some have become increasingly worried about what they call a “propaganda” campaign launched by processors. One grower told Farmers Forum that the growers hope to reach a new deal with processors by the end of January.
In defence of his decision to end price bargaining, Kamenz said that moving to a free market system was necessary for the long-term viability of the industry.
Wallaceburg tomato grower Ron VanDamme said that “when they talk about going to a free market, it’s not.” Most growers have one buyer, unlike corn growers who have many, he said.