One dollar to make it all peachy

I don’t have a crystal ball (I’m all for kitsch but even I think they’re tacky) but I do have a prediction for 2010.

This will be the year that really tests how committed we are to eating local and how sincere grocery store chains are about wanting to have local food to offer us.

With minimum wage set to rise to $10.25 in March, Niagara’s tender fruit industry is at an interesting crossroads. It has managed to survive the loss of a sour cherry processor, the last remaining fruit cannery in Canada and, so far, the well-timed invasions of foreign produce on grocery store shelves.

But the latest hike to the hourly wage — something no one denies is needed — could be what drastically changes the industry as we’ve come to know it. While I don’t have a crystal ball, I did have a copy of a George Morris Centre report come across my desk predicting a rotten outcome for the edible horticulture industry — fruits and veggies — next year.

The report’s author, Al Mussell, calculated the pay raise to the labourers Niagara’s tender fruit growers rely on in their orchards could cut farmers’ profits in half. It’s not that they’re making much of a profit to begin with. Still, the pay increase will cost them $73 million.

In a story in The Standard earlier this month, Mussell painted a grim picture for an industry that defined agriculture in Niagara long before wineries started dotting our landscape.

“If nothing is done, it will surely shrink (the industry),” said Al Mussell, report author and researcher with Guelph’s George Morris Centre. “Will it kill it? If the industry decreases in size by 40, 60, 70%, has that killed it? Some people would say yes.

“What exactly would go on in the rural areas surrounding St. Catharines if it didn’t have tender fruit and grapes and wine? This is serious stuff.”

The problem is further exacerbated for growers when those paltry profits start to take their toll on stabilization payments, which are calculated based on growers’ earnings.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Mussell’s report was the statement that what’s happening in the edible horticulture industry is an example of provincial policies being at odds with each other. On the one hand, we have the greenbelt, a provincially mandated agricultural preserve that some fear is becoming a farming museum. On the other, we have policies that seem to contradict what the greenbelt was created to do — keep farmers farming.

Provincial agriculture minister Leona Dombrowsky said she was lobbying hard for a new business risk management program — something industry reps have also been asking for. She also rhymed off other programs, including a self-directed risk management program and cash help in 2007, to try to prove that the government does support Ontario’s edible horticulture industry.

Problem is, some of that assistance and those programs Dombrowsky was touting are either now defunct or were intended to help growers with problems they were facing at the moment, not to poise them to deal with the pending wage hike.

So what to do?

While Leona keeps lobbying, Brenda Lammens, chairwoman of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers, does the same. She’s visiting local municipalities to drum up support for growers. And she’s getting some help from a sage guy on the local ag scene: Len Troup, chairman of the Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board.

Len is one of my favourite people. I always get an education when I’m in his presence. Though he’s also in favour of a business risk management program, which is similar to crop insurance, Troup recently offered this innovative suggestion: have consumers pay only one dollar more on a basket of peaches (or pears, plums and nectarines) in the grocery store. A small cup of that all-Canadian elixir, coffee at Tim Hortons, costs more than that.

With consumers chipping in an extra buck, raising the price from the usual door-crashing, below-cost $2.99 that’s commonplace in the summer to $3.99 on a basket of peaches, the industry could sustain itself without government aid, Troup said.

Dombrowsky has often said in interviews that farmers want to earn their money from the marketplace, but will they be able to do it? Or will consumers balk at the dollar and opt for the cheap imports stocked next to local food in the grocery store, without really understanding the expense of their actions? And that’s only if grocery stores agree to finally pay farmers a fair price, and therefore, charge shoppers a fair price. To me, that seems like the bigger hurdle. They are, after all, competing for consumers and price is usually the best artillery in that battle.

If they don’t, though, they’ll be losing out on a major marketing ploy — local food, particularly if Mussell’s prediction comes true. Remember the warm and fuzzy commercials by Loblaw Companies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which chairman Galen Weston was filmed walking through fields and orchards throughout Canada, meeting with farmers?

Those were good commercials and Weston’s appeal is his seeming authenticity. In last week’s Ontario Farmer, Weston told delegates at an adaptation council meeting that Loblaw’s sheer size can drive change in food, including “the production system and stimulate more responsible and consumer-oriented outcomes.”

Here’s his chance to prove it.

(Sobeys can jump in with $3.99 peaches anytime, too).

In other 2010 predictions:
My indoor Swiss chard doesn’t last the winter. Doesn’t last January, more like it. Things aren’t looking good for my favourite leafy green, which hasn’t grown much since coming inside. I got the impression after talking to Linda that it was turning to seed. Now I’m certain it was just plotting its death.


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