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Ontario’s tender fruit growers need help

July 14, 2008  By The Canadian Press

peaches01July 14, 2008, Toronto, Ont. – Markets for Ontario's tender fruit growers are drying up and it's time the provincial government helped out, says a Conservative member of provincial parliament (MPP).

July 14, 2008, Toronto, Ont. – The Backus family has been living and working the land in southern Ontario’s Niagara region for eight generations and, for the last 100 years, pear trees blossomed on a large swath of their property.

peaches01This spring, Doug Backus and his sons were forced to uproot the orchard because there was no longer a facility to process their harvest.

CanGro Foods closed its fruit cannery in St. David at the end of June, marking the end of the canning industry in Ontario.

Backus said the closure has affected 150 local growers, including workers who started on his farm three weeks later than usual as a result.

“We’ve been working shorter hours rather than firing somebody, so everybody’s taking the pinch,” said Backus, whose farm includes some 52 hectares of land.

Since 2005, two other facilities in Niagara vital to growers for the processing tender fruit, which includes grapes, peaches, cherries and pears, have also vanished.

The situation is nearing a critical state and the province has to step in soon, said Conservative Tim Hudak, the region’s member of provincial parliament.

“This has left some (2,400 hectares) of formerly lush and productive tender fruit and grape land without a viable a market to go to,” said Tim Hudak, who represents Niagara West-Glanbrook.

Hudak said the woes started in 2005 with the Liberal government’s Greenbelt Act, which designated farmland in the region solely for agricultural purposes.

The act itself isn’t the problem, it’s the government economic policy that goes with it, he said.

“(The act) locked farmers into economic production, but it had no economic plan to ensure they had a market in which to sell their goods,” said Hudak.

In response, with the help of farmers from his riding as well as industry and municipal officials, Hudak recently released a plan to help the region’s tender fruit industry.

“Where Do We Grow From Here?” proposes measures that include a replant strategy for farmers forced to change their crops, funding for irrigation systems, a market access program, and improved promotion of Ontario products.

The Liberal government has pumped millions of dollars into the Niagara region’s tender fruit industry and already has a “Buy Ontario” policy, said Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman Kelly Synnott.

“We’ve recently invested $56 million in promoting Ontario products so that people and consumers are preferring Ontario when they go to the grocery store,” said Synnott, who added the province also has a pilot program for homegrown products in its own cafeterias, wherever possible.

The government also tried to secure a new buyer for the CanGro Foods cannery before it finally closed, she said.

Len Troup of the Ontario Tender Fruit Board said it’s difficult to see how future generations will survive if conditions in the region don’t change.

“We’re like any business in Ontario today and we’re struggling to stay alive,” said Troup, whose family runs a 133-hectare farm in Niagara. “It’s difficult to look down the road when you’re in that situation.”

Backus said the Greenbelt Act has done nothing to help farmers and has, in fact, tied their hands because they are no longer allowed to divide their property.

“Basically we’ve lost a certain amount of rights as landowners, for no compensation,” said Backus.

Hudak’s plan also proposes changes to the labelling of products and the creation of specialty private wine stores, that would exist alongside Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, to better promote wines from the province's grape growers.

Peter Kormos, the NDP’s member from Niagara, said recently his party supports the idea of stores for Ontario wines, but wants them to be run by the province.

“New Democrats believe the same goal can be achieved by providing LCBO stores for small output wineries,” he said.

The Greenbelt Act is up for review in 2015 and Hudak said a Conservative government would respect that process.

In the meantime, it would bring in new economic policies to help farmers, he said.

Meanwhile, Troup said farmers need the province’s help in a world market with rising costs and cheaper imports.

“We need a change in attitude at the government level where, in a nutshell, they have to do things for us and stop doing things to us.”

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