Ontario’s processing vegetable growers in new regulatory reality

The only way is forward.

That’s what Ontario’s processing vegetable growers heard at their annual meeting from the chair of the group that regulates farm marketing in the province.

That doesn’t mean some farmers didn’t still question the province’s move to fire the board of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) and its staff in 2017.

Jim Clark, the chair of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission (OFPMC), said changes to the industry were necessary to continue to break down silos between parts of the value chain and move the sector forward.

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The bottom line: Challenges remain in sorting out the new regulations imposed on the organization, but most of the way forward has been set for the sector.

Arpad Pasztor spoke to the concerns of many growers in the industry over the past year, as he addressed Clark during a question and answer session at OPVG’s annual meeting last week.

“I’ve been trying to get my head around the whole situation since it started,” said Pasztor, a cucumber grower. “For the life of me, I don’t understand why this is happening even now. I’ve been involved in other marketing boards. This is one of the best run and best for the growers’ sake.”

Pasztor challenged the marketing commission’s record and suggested it favoured processors over producers.

That prompted Clark, whose main job is the executive director of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association, to defend his farming credentials.

“At the end of the day (we) have to start moving this thing forward, people. There’s enough blame going around for everybody, trust me.”

However, most of the annual meeting’s comments were saved for details about the way forward, including clarification on contract security language in Regulation 440.

In the room were several of the province’s leading growers and former board members, including Francis Dobbelaar, a Wallaceburg grower, former chair of the board and the leader of a new organization formed for vegetable growers after the OPVG board was dismissed.

“I trust Jim and I trust his direction,” Dobbelaar said. “We’re moving forward and that’s what we should do, but we have to make sure we follow good governance practices.”

The changes to the board practices were necessary to encourage processing to stay in the province, Clark said.

How did we get here?

  • In 2016, the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission proposed opening up the marketing of processing vegetables in Ontario. Jeff Leal, the Ontario agriculture minister stayed that process after a producer and industry outcry.
  • Last winter, after little progress on changing the sector, Leal fired the board and installed a trustee when a major tomato buyer, Highbury Canco, refused to negotiate with the OPVG.
  • Most of the rest of the employees were dismissed and the trustee negotiated contracts for the 2017 growing season.
  • Half of a new board was appointed, and half was elected last fall.
  • A board chair, Suzanne Van Bommel, was appointed for two years.
  • The OFPMC, under new chair Jim Clark, was given the task of managing the transition to a new reality for processing vegetable marketing, including the fall release of Regulation 440 a new set of rules for the sector.

Audit called sloppy

Processing vegetable growers, their organization’s board of directors and its lawyer all called for investigation of the details of an audit of the board by the provincial government.

The audit, conducted by the internal audit division of the provincial government’s treasury board secretariat, was critical of the cost of board per diems, calling them four times the average for farmer boards. Language used in the audit has created confusion over whether costs stated are for the entire board or per board member, and the audit makes reference to 12 board members when there are nine.

Van Bommel said the board has requested a meeting with the internal audit division and has been working with its own auditors to check the numbers of the government audit.

“Auditors are very, very careful,” board lawyer Rob Wilson told growers. “It strikes me that this document you’ve got isn’t an audit. It’s a disappointing document and disparaging to this organization.”

— John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia based at Ailsa Craig, Ont. Follow him at @jgreig on Twitter.

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