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The Heinz factory in Leamington, Ont. (DAVE CHIDLEY FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The Heinz factory in Leamington, Ont. (DAVE CHIDLEY FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Leamington’s Heinz farmers: ‘There is life after tomatoes’ Add to ...

Walter Brown has been growing tomatoes for H.J. Heinz Co. for 47 years. Now he’s looking for another crop and wondering what to do with a barn full of planters, harvesters and trailers that are useless for anything but tomatoes.

Heinz said last week that it will close the century-old plant in Leamington, Ont., in mid-2014 along with two others in the U.S. as it shifts production of ketchup, baby food and sauces to other factories. The move will put 740 Heinz employees and about 200 seasonal labourers out of work. The farmers who were under contract to supply Heinz with tomatoes are left trying to find a new crop to plant in the spring, and some way to replace the business that has kept their farms busy and profitable for generations.

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“I’m going to be left with a barn full of tomato equipment that I have no idea what I’m going to do with. There’s going to be millions of dollars’ worth of machinery that will just sit and rust” at farms in the region, said Mr. Brown, who says he has about $500,000 worth of specialized machinery. Instead of tomatoes, he will plant grains or seed corn, crops that are easier to grow but less profitable.

Heinz opened the plant in Southern Ontario more than a century ago, drawn to the Leamington area for its long growing season, sandy soil and light rains that provide the rare conditions needed to grow field tomatoes. The town became known as Canada’s Tomato Capital for good reason – Heinz has contracts with more than 40 area farms to buy 40 per cent of Ontario’s 500,000-tonne tomato crop.

“Heinz and Leamington are one and the same,” said Herb Enns, a retired farmer who grew tomatoes for Heinz for 35 years.

Farmers say other large buyers of tomatoes in the region – including Sun-Brite Foods Inc. and ConAgra Foods, which makes Hunt’s tomato sauce and Chef Boyardee – are not keen to take on new growers, preferring to give any new business to their current contractors.

Jean-Marie Laprise says he is one of the lucky ones.

Just 10 per cent of his greenhouse output is the young tomato plants bought by local Heinz growers; and the rest includes lettuce, broccoli and other vegetables that that will end up in supermarkets. But he said there are few ways to replace the tomato plant business in an industry in which prices have fallen by 30 per cent over the past three decades as farm yields have soared.

“Our tomato acreage is a very small percentage of our business but it’s a significant percentage of our labour requirements and gross income because it’s a high-value crop,” said Mr. Laprise, who has grown tomatoes for Heinz for 40 years and supplied greenhouse transplants for 23 years.

“We are going to take our financial blows and move on to other things,” he said. “There is life after tomatoes. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to take a financial hit on assets and look to refocus to see how we replace the income, or just do without it.”

Mr. Laprise said he received word of the Heinz plant shutdown last week in an e-mail from Heinz that was followed by a letter couriered to his farm near Chatham, Ont., shortly after spreading fertilizer on his field for next year’s crop. Like most growers for Heinz, the work for next year’s crop is well under way: Growing beds have been shaped and strips of barley planted to keep the loose soil from blowing away while the new tomato plants grow.

Farmers say they want compensation from Heinz for the cancellation of their contracts and the work they already put into next year’s crop.

Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen in an e-mail on Wednesday would not comment, other than to say Heinz will continue to invest in the plant in St. Marys, Ont., that will pick up some of the Leamington production for Canada.

For Mr. Enns and other long-time farmers in the area, it’s not the first time a large food processor has pulled up stakes and left them to find new crops and new buyers.

Snap beans, sweet corn, tomatoes and pickles – Mr. Enns has grown them all for large canners and processors over the years, only to watch them quit the area. He said farmers will find a way to adjust, even though it might not be easy.

“They’ll take it on the chin and they’ll try to grow another crop,” Mr. Enns said.

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