by SUSAN MANN
The Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers board is meeting with the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission next month to find out why it’s proposing to rescind the board’s price negotiating powers. In a related development, several Ontario farm groups are supporting the notion of grower choice in marketing commodities.
On June 28, the commission posted a proposal on the Ontario Regulatory Registry to remove the negotiating authority of the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers marketing board and add provisions to turn the board into an industry advisory committee. Comments are due Aug. 12.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Don McCabe says the federation supports the notion “that there is grower choice in how a farmer chooses to market their particular commodity” — and that includes the choice to negotiate as a group for their contracts.
The federation has sent out a letter to commodities and other groups asking them to support the principle of grower choice in marketing commodities. The letter will be forwarded to the commission. Representatives from both the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and National Farmers Union – Ontario say they support the position.
McCabe said the Ontario federation became involved after the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, as members of the federation, “asked if we could discuss this issue” with them.
When contacted by phone on Tuesday, Jim Clark, vice chair of the commission, said he couldn’t answer questions about the commission’s vegetable board proposals.
“All questions and all press are going through the chair (Geri Kamenz),” said Clark, who is also executive director of the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association.
Kamenz hasn’t yet responded to Better Farming’s requests for comment. Better Farming isn’t the only one waiting to hear from Kamenz.
Chatham-Kent-Essex MPP Rick Nicholls asked several questions in a July 19 letter to the commission, including why the commission was proposing to remove the vegetable board’s price negotiating powers. Nicholls said in a July 26 press release he didn’t yet have a response back from the commission, despite asking it to provide answers as soon as possible since the consultation period for the proposal ends Aug. 12.
Nicholls also hosted a town hall meeting Monday night in Leamington to give growers a chance to talk about the commission’s proposal. More than 100 farmers attended, he said in the release.
“Concerns were voiced by many who believe ramming through a revolutionary upheaval on Ontario’s processing vegetable marketing system is an affront to 70 years of work by growers, processors and government,” he said in the release. Nicholls was referring to the vegetable board being in existence for 70 years.
Another meeting to discuss the issue is scheduled to get underway this morning in Norfolk County.
Nicholls said he and Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett, the Progressive Conservatives agriculture critic who also attended Monday’s meeting, have concluded “dismantling the orderly marketing system for processing vegetables will set a precedent for the orderly marketing of other farm products.”
Another group waiting for answers from the commission is the processing vegetable board. It still doesn’t have a response to its pressing questions, including what specifically is wrong with the present marketing system and why more time hasn’t been allocated to such a drastic change, said chair Francis Dobbelaar. It submitted a request to the commission in early July asking for more information and details on the proposal.
Dobbelaar noted the entire vegetable board is scheduled to meet with the commission on Aug. 3 in Guelph. Hopefully they’ll get answers there, he said.
Processing vegetables are mainly grown in southwestern Ontario, in a region stretching from Simcoe to Windsor. The board represents about 400 growers.
“We’re hoping to ask the commission our questions and get an understanding of exactly what they mean by what they’re saying,” Dobbelaar said. “It’s obviously a significant change to the regulations, considering how long they’ve been in effect and the history to them.”
There were many people both in government and individuals in industry who formed “this thing over 70 years. To take it off the table like that is generating a lot of questions,” he said.
Dobbelaar noted the vegetable board respects the commission’s authority “to make changes to orderly marketing. We’re hoping to work with them really closely to come to some sort of better adjustment to the regulations.”
In the meantime, the commission’s proposal is already creating uncertainty for the vegetable board in its ability to conduct business.
“We’re going to be going into negotiations (with processors) within three months and with the ball up in the air, it’s already creating a lot of chaos,” Dobbelaar said.
In addition to questioning the proposal itself, many people are raising concerns about the process the commission is using to suggest the changes, saying the 45-conusltation period is not enough time for growers and others in the middle of cropping and harvesting processing vegetables to comment. Furthermore, there should be public hearings, a detailed economic analysis study and a producer vote to consider such a dramatic change to the workings of the board.
As for the processing vegetable board’s positions on those ideas, Dobbelaar said, “the first thing we have to do is meet with the commission.”
However, the vegetable board does agree with suggestions there needs to be a detailed economic analysis included with the proposal.
Barrett asked in a July 15 letter to Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal that the consultation period be extended past the initial Aug. 12 deadline and past harvest time and that public hearings be held.
The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario also has concerns that the 45-day comment period isn’t enough time to deal with such a dramatic change. Furthermore, the commission’s proposal is “very vague on what they’re planning on changing,” noted president Clarence Nywening.
“We’re very concerned about it,” he said. “Members are phoning us and asking what’s going on? They think the (processing vegetable marketing) system is working fine and now they’re concerned it’s going to be dismantled or changed.”
More time is needed for consultations, he added, to ensure that what’s being proposed “is of benefit for our farmers and our processing industry in Ontario and Canada.”
Similar to Barrett, the Christian federation is also pushing for a longer consultation period and public hearings.
In addition to supporting the Ontario federation’s position on grower choice in how farmers market vegetable crops, the Christian federation plans to send its own submission to both the commission and the Ontario agriculture ministry on behalf of its members, he said.
Emery Huszka, NFU-O president and Region 3 coordinator, said the commission’s proposal is a “very low blow. One of the fundamental rights of a farmer is to work with other farmers to produce a crop to actually make a living. We work with our partners, including the food processors, but that does not mean giving up all of our autonomy.”
Huszka added Minister Leal should show true leadership and publicly outline where the desire to remove the vegetable board’s price negotiating authority is coming from. “Is this coming as a proposal from his ministry or is this a directive from the Liberal Party?” BF