The closure of the Heinz plant in Leamington, Ontario, may be a signal of far greater concerns in the food sector for Canada, say producers. The closure of the 104-year-old plant that supported the building of infrastructure and even tourism in the community will be felt far beyond the Leamington’s borders.
“That plant did more than process tomatoes. It did a baby food line, it made BBQ sauce and other products,” said Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
“It’s a real blow. [Farmers] are going to have to figure out what else to grow because there is no market for them to grow tomatoes.”
Fresh fruit and vegetable growers tend to grow for a different market than farmers who grow for processing, so the impact consumers will see on fresh vegetables available in grocery stores will likely be small, explains Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Still, he cautions not to discount any impacts completely.
Some farmers who grew for Heinz may have had produce that didn’t meet the processing plant’s requirements but could have been sold in a secondary market, said Lemaire.
And then there are the unexpected consequences.
“Of course, there is always collateral impact in cases like this that are difficult to predict, but our members will likely avoid the majority of it,” he said.
Those impacts are likely to be felt by other food product producers and companies that provided other products or services to the plant.
Honey operations in Cottam, Ontario, were directly impacted, according to the Ontario Beekeepers Association. The makers of cans used in processing may also be impacted, suggests Art Smith for the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
“We have lost a lot of processing capacity in Ontario. In the last ten years we have lost seven or eight plants. When we look at the fruit side of things there is no peach or pear canner left east of the Rockies,” said Smith.
“We have lost vegetable plants and this is a sign of the times as much as anything and the need to be price-competitive.”
Ontario farmers are expected to compete more directly with farmers in other countries compared to service sector industries, Smith noted. The problem, he said, is that regulations such as labour or water regulations are stricter in Canada, creating a herculean challenge.
“People buy on price. People in Guelph don’t go to Niagara Falls on the U.S. side to buy a cup of coffee,” he said. “What sets us (farmers) apart is the product from Chile is right next to our product. There is no extra effort or expense to buy a product from Chile, U.S. or wherever else.”
Until a solution is found to the situation, Smith predicts a continued challenge for farms and food processing in the province. Currently, groups in Ottawa are in discussions on a national food strategy to ensure Canadians have access to fresh Canadian products.
“We are concerned and we think that consumers need to start thinking about it said,” said Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumer Council of Canada.
“Canada imports a lot of food. The conventional sense of people is that we are a gigantic food producer—why should we worry about it? We still are, but only in certain commodities.”
Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.