Local food movement needs local processing

Ontario’s farmers and food processors suffered another setback recently when the J.M. Smucker Company announced it was moving its Bick’s pickling operations from the Ontario towns of Dunnville and Delhi to south of the border.

This is just the latest in a seemingly ongoing string of food processing plant closures in recent years. Not only do these cost our economy manufacturing jobs – more than 200 full-time and part-time jobs in this case — but they also mean a loss of markets for farmers.

According to the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, the Smucker’s pickling business held approximately one-third of the Ontario pickling cucumber contracts in 2010, and they also pickled beets and peppers. Going forward, it’s likely that these Ontario cucumbers will be going to market in the U.S. instead.

A recently released study on the economic footprint of Ontario agriculture showed that the provincial farming sector sustains 164,000 jobs, and that farm outputs contributed $22 billion in gross economic stimulus to Ontario in 2009. This economic contribution also included $3.4 billion paid in federal and provincial taxes to help support our health, education and transportation systems, as well as other vital infrastructure.

The study further showed that Ontario’s food processing sector is a $33-billion industry that directly employs 110,000 Ontarians and buys almost three-quarters of Ontario’s farm production. This means our food processors need a steady supply of local ingredients and farmers need local food processors to buy what they’re growing.

The local food movement continues to gain strength in Ontario as consumers look for ways to reduce their environmental footprint and support local farmers by buying homegrown fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, dairy products and poultry. Our climate makes it challenging to enjoy most Ontario produce on a year-round basis without it being processed in some way.

If other food processors follow the lead of Smucker’s or CanGro, which closed eastern Canada’s last remaining fruit cannery in 2008, and move their operations elsewhere, the impact on our province will be significant in several ways. Many farmers grow crops like peaches, beets, cucumbers, peppers, cherries and others specifically for the processing market.

But food processors also represent a valuable market for the fruits and vegetables originally destined for the fresh market that don’t quite meet the high standards of perfection consumers and retailers have come to expect. When those markets disappear, jobs are lost, farmers must alter what they grow – which can also affect jobs – and we, as consumers, lose yet another chance to enjoy locally grown food year round.

It’s no secret that fruit and vegetable farmers in Ontario have been hurting these last several years and there are no indications this is going to get any better any time soon. All farmers are dealing with increased costs for energy, fuel, fertilizer and other inputs, as well as labour.

In most industries, these costs are just passed along the chain. It’s not that easy when someone is growing fresh fruits and vegetables though. It’s the world price for produce that sets the tone, and if Canadian farmers increase their prices to keep up with rising costs, buyers go elsewhere in a hurry and farmers here at home lose out.

To me, the link between the troubled fruit and vegetable production sector and the closures of Ontario-based food processing plants is very real.

A healthy farming sector can support a strong food processing industry, and to that end horticulture farmers are seeking some assistance from the provincial government. They’re asking the government to help them put some sustainability back into their industry by working with them to establish and maintain a predictable risk management program.

The slogan “Farmers Feed Cities” certainly resonates in this instance. The majority of the province’s more than 3,000 food processors are located in urban areas. If farmers go out of business, so will many of these small- and medium-sized processors, leaving us to not only look elsewhere for a food supply but also throwing many Ontarians out of work.

You can also read this column in today’s edition of the Guelph Mercury.

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