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Ontario: production holding steady in Chatham-Kent

05/10/2020 - François-Xavier Branthôme - 2020 Season
With tomato products flying off the shelf in 2020, prospects look good for Ontario’s tomato processing industry but the number of growers involved with the industry has fallen. According to the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG), just 66 contracts were issued in 2020. That’s down from 74 contracts a year ago and a high of 98 in 2016.

Meanwhile, production is growing. The contracted tonnage rose marginally in 2020 over 2019 to 474,880 short tons (431 000 metric tonnes) but the actual harvest could be even larger, weather permitting. “It’s going well. We got off to an early start this year because the company wanted to get all the tomatoes in that they could,” the grower Harm Luth said, speaking early September. 

The Luth family has seen a lot of change since they arrived to Canada from Holland in 1950, including the 2019 decision by the Ontario government to finally eliminate marketing board powers for processing tomatoes despite a majority of growers supporting the system. Asked about pricing in 2020, Luth said he couldn’t recall the numbers.
Of the three major canning operations, only growers delivering to Conagra Foods at Dresden settled their contracts as group. At Sun-Brite Foods and Highbury Canco, both based in Essex County, growers negotiated as individuals with their respective processor. In the past, all processing growers were represented by the OPVG as prices, terms and conditions were being negotiated.

Ken Hamm, the vice-chair of the OPVG, said a handful of growers, some with 300 acres of production (121 hectares), decided to leave the industry this year. That’s resulted in a shift in overall production from Essex County to Chatham-Kent. In his growing area, an irrigation system was setup by growers several years ago, drawing water from Lake Erie. “We needed it this past summer. It was dry and we did a lot of irrigation. Most of the irrigation tape has now been removed.

Hamm said early yields in the region were disappointing, but if the weather cooperates, that later planted tomatoes should make up the different. As of 21 September, Hamm said his fields were averaging around 101 mT/ha (45 tons per acre). “The back half of the crop, the late crop, looks a fair bit better.
The weather can easily change the situation. Too much rain combined with warmer temperatures can result in tomatoes splitting and mould becoming an issue. Hamm is hoping for dryer weather and more moderate temperatures so that the yield potential and quality of the crop can be maintained.

Hamm remains positive about the industry’s future prospects. So does Keith Robbins, the OPVG general manager. “A lot of processing tomato products just flew off the grocery shelves this spring,” he said. “I think a lot of people are looking for that Product of Canada designation.

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