I feel for the good people of Leamington as they struggle to prepare for life without Heinz. The company, which has been a huge part of their lives and their community for more than a century, will close next June.
Some say they could see the end coming when Heinz was sold to Americans a couple of years ago. Still, despite warnings, it’s an extremely frustrating situation, especially when eleventh-hour appeals from the province to the new owners to somehow keep the plant open proved fruitless.
But as difficult as it is, now’s the time to get even, not get mad, and enlist every possible ally in the fight.
Farmers are the first ally. To its credit, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture charged out of the gates when Heinz dropped the bombshell last Friday, offering to help broker entrepreneurial connections with other parts of the agri-food sector for the town. The federation says it will join in the hunt for new partners to fill the Heinz void. It will reach out to other producer organizations “to explore new opportunities to keep this land in agricultural production and safeguard the economic stability of this important rural community,” according to federation president Mark Wales.
Maybe even Heinz will get involved. Who knows. But I’d be very surprised if some form of provincial support wasn’t offered to Leamington, particularly if the town takes the high road and tries to help itself in the search for what University of Guelph food policy expert Sylvain Charlebois described to the Windsor Star newspaper as new tomato opportunities.
This search is custom made for a pro-Leamington agriculture media campaign. Turn the hate for Heinz into love for Leamington. Make the “o” in “love” a tomato. It’s a perfect David-versus-Goliath scenario. Anyone who says they support local food will be all over it. As difficult as it may be to put on a brave face right now, a key is to act like an industry rich in resources and talent, which is the truth, not one that allows itself to be stomped on by a huge US-owned corporation.
Window dressing and public relations alone won’t fully address the Heinz gap. But public support is crucial for opening up provincial coffers. And it’s not hard to show the economic contributions food processors make to Ontario. As Wales notes, Ontario’s food and beverage processing sector, including the Heinz plant, generates $21.3 billion towards the province’s annual GDP. Is it reasonable for the province to help keep this part of the economy buoyant? I’d say so.
Many years ago I watched my very industrial and agricultural hometown of Wallaceburg take it on the chin time and again as big and small factories there closed. It has yet to recover. Leamington, or any rural Ontario town for that matter, deserves a better fate. Agriculture is much more organized now, the province understands its role better, and no rural community should be left to wither away.
This Real Talk, Real Action column is a weekly installment on the RealAgriculture.com. See past columns here.