Surrounded by flat, fertile farmland, the town of Leamington, Ont., calls itself the Tomato Capital of Canada. But Douglas Stockwell is one of about a dozen farmers in the area who are unlikely to grow any tomatoes this season. In each of the past eight years, Stockwell planted more than 110 acres of tomatoes and sold his harvest to Hunt-Wesson Canada, the subsidiary of a U.S. food processing conglomerate. HuntWesson then turned Stockwell's tomatoes into tomato sauce and ketchup at a plant in Tilbury, Ont., about 20 km north of Leamington. But in November, Hunt-Wesson shut down its Tilbury facility and announced that it was shifting its tomato processing operations to the company’s four existing plants in Ohio and California.
Stockwell says that he has tried to find another purchaser for his tomatoes, but without success. As a result, his $500,000 worth of specialized planting, cultivating and harvesting equipment may remain idle.
Said the 39-year-old farmer: “You can’t pick com, or anything else, with a tomato harvester. I’m sitting on $500,000 worth of scrap steel.”
The plant’s closing also threw 40 full-time and 100 seasonal employees out of work. In all, about 30,000 workers have lost their jobs in the food-and-beverage processing industry in Canada since November, 1988. Tilbury Mayor Charles Carrick says that the shutdown will cost his community about $30,000 a year in lost property taxes alone. Said Carrick: “Anything like that hurts.”
Still, Hunt-Wesson Canada president Taketo Murata says that the company had little choice but to close. “We recognize it’s not easy for anybody,” he adds. “Basically, it is an issue of costs.” Murata says that production costs at the Tilbury plant were 25 per cent higher than in the United States, in part because the
company’s U.S. facilities are larger and more efficient. In addition, wholesale tomato prices are about 25 per cent higher in Canada than in the United States.
Stockwell says that he understands Hunt-Wesson’s decision. He blames his predicament on the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, under which Canada’s 13.6-per-cent tariff on imported tomato products is to be phased out by 1999. Declared Stockwell, who purchased his farm in 1974: “It’s a free trade issue. Food processors no longer have to process here to sell here.”
His immediate challenge is to find a new customer for his crop so that he can continue to make a living. But the nearest remaining processor, H. J. Heinz Co. of Canada Ltd., in Leamington, already has enough tomato growers under contract. Said Stockwell: “I just don’t know what I'm going to do. It’s very stressful to see 17 years of farming going down the drain.”
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