Tomato growers seek judicial review

Ontario processing tomato growers want the judicial system to review steps the provincial government took to seize control of their marketing board.

Earlier this month, a group of 100 growers filed a request in Toronto for a judicial review by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice Divisional Court.

As of May 4, the group was waiting for the courts to decide on its request.

The growers’ board, the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, negotiates on behalf of its members with the province’s primary processors (those who can, freeze or dehydrate vegetables) to set prices for crops such as tomatoes, peas and sweet corn.

In March, provincial Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal fired the board’s directors and appointed Elmer Buchanan as its trustee.

Leal cited concerns about an impasse in 2017 price negotiations between tomato growers and processors.

Buchanan is a former vice-char of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, which oversees the farm sector’s marketing boards.

Growers have also raised concerns about annual price agreements reached with processors shortly after Buchanan took control. Some growers have said the terms will result in prices below California tomato prices, considered to be the industry standard.

Buchanan said he has seen an unofficial document outlining the group’s request to the courts but no official notification.

“It kind of stirs the pot a bit, which is a concern of mine,” he said.

“Things were starting to settle down a bit.”

He acknowledged concerns about price discounts connected to a program devised to encourage efforts to boost yields per acre and said a committee of nine growers — three of whom had been original negotiators — had negotiated tomato terms with processors.

“I wasn’t the one negotiating, although I was there in chairing things.”

The commission is moving ahead with an economic study of the industry, he added.

Al Mussell and Kevin Grier of Agri-Food Economic Systems will conduct the study.

Kristy Denette, an Ontario ministry of agriculture spokesperson, said it would not be appropriate for the ministry to comment on a case “that may be before the court, or speculate on any potential legal action that individuals may choose to take.”

Francis Dobbelaar, former chair of the growers association and chair of a new industry group that the growers have formed, said there didn’t seem to be a clear reason for Leal’s actions.

“There was no impasse,” he said, noting the association’s negotiators were close to reaching an agreement with two of the three processors involved before Buchanan stepped in.

Dobbelaar and the group he represents, the Processing Vegetable Growers’ Alliance Inc., are listed as the applicants on the notice of application to the divisional court. The document lists the commission, the agriculture ministry and Buchanan as the respondents.

The document asks the court to remove Buchanan and reinstate the former board or require elections for new committee and board members. It also asks the court to reinstate board staff that growers claim were terminated by Buchanan. The group wants damages for “harm to reputation and loss of position.”

Dobbelaar said that at a May 3 meeting, the group agreed to continue to seek legal action but is open to making a deal with the government.

Buchanan said staff members were not fired. One long-term staff member was on leave and expected to retire at the end of the year. The departure of another employee was a mutual agreement.

In a meeting with growers in March, Buchanan had said he hoped to hold elections for committees and the board before the end of the year. In May, he confirmed the intent to turn the organization back to growers.

“(But) there are some things that need to happen before I can do that, and I do believe that the commission is going to probably post some regulations that have some suggestions around governance,” he said.

“I have recommended that there needs to be some things for the board in terms of term limits and maybe some other things.… And I have also been quite clear that I support collective bargaining.”

Larry Martin, an independent industry consultant who has worked with the growers in the past, said it’s understandable they have sought legal action.

“What objective reason was there for disbanding the board?” he said.

“They (growers) didn’t do anything illegal. There’s no indication whatsoever that the majority of the growers weren’t supporting the board.”

In an April 24 letter to Dobbelaar, Jim Clark, the commission’s interim chair, urged growers to work with Buchanan.

“We do not believe that litigation will be practical or useful in the circumstances,” he said.

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