If you're a farmer in nearby Niagara and you grow grapes for wine, things are looking up.
Domestic wines now account for half of Ontario's wine consumption. According to a survey by the Grape Growers of Ontario, more than 40 per cent of Ontarians consider themselves advocates of Ontario's products.
Homegrown pride is imperative for any industry, and Ontario's wine sector is earning its support. More than half of those surveyed by the grape growers said they've become more impressed with Ontario wine over the past three years.
It shows. Almost half of Ontarians say they're drinking more wine than they were three years ago, consuming an average of 15 glasses of wine per month.
Now, contrast that cheery scenario to the plight of farmers who grow grapes for juice. They might farm side by side in Niagara, but the juice farmers have taken a beating. Chronic low prices and poor demand have plagued them for years, and they've been appealing to the federal and provincial governments for support for a replant program.
They don't want money for nothing. They want support so they can get rid of the tired juice grape varieties they grow, and plant something else, which is likely to be vinifera (wine-quality) grapes.
Calls for support intensified in March, when Cadbury Schweppes Beverages announced its St. Catharines plant would close. That decision impacted more than 100 farmers who grow up to 3,000 acres of juice grapes.
Last week, the grape growers' wishes started coming true when Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Leona Dombrowsky, announced the $3.8-million Ontario Juice Grape Transition Program. Prices and prospects were so poor that growers were starting to abandon maintenance of their vineyards, prompting action from the minister.
She said that helping juice grape growers pull out their unused vines would decrease the risk of disease and pest outbreaks, which could be a disaster to juice growers' neighbours, the financially rewarding vinifera grape growers.
Bill George Jr., chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario, said the provincial program comes at a critical time in the grape growing season. He praised the minister and the government for "recognizing and responding quickly to this phyto-sanitary issue." Farmers will get $1,500 per acre to remove and dispose vineyard stock that isn't being used for production.
But the juice industry still has big issues. The $3.8 million was just to help farmers get their old vines out of the ground. It doesn't contribute toward assistance for replanting new varieties. The grape growers say they'll keep pressing governments to get behind the replant program, which they estimate will cost $50 million. The growers themselves will chip in, but they're looking for major support from Ottawa and Queen's Park.
This may sound familiar if you've followed the plight of tobacco farmers, who were, and still are, trying to get governments to help them make the transition to other crops. They ran into a similar situation — cheap offshore competition and dwindling domestic markets.
But the tobacco growers always contended governments owed them a way out, for a couple of reasons. First, their products were taxed to the hilt, reaping billions of dollars for government coffers. Yet on the other hand, governments warned people not to use their product, even though it was perfectly legal — if unhealthy. The farmers felt they were being forced out of business as governments continued upping sin taxes, vilifying their products and not returning any tax dollars to help them get out of tobacco.
So again, with the grape growers, taxpayers are being asked for money to help farmers switch from one commodity to another. And again, from a farmers' perspective, it's not unreasonable to ask governments to contribute. The grape growers cite an independent study from 2005 that shows every bottle of Ontario wine sold in the province adds $4.25 in value to the Ontario economy.
With our consumption of Ontario wine increasing, the industry's value to the provincial economy grows as well. If this line of logic follows, helping farmers get rid of unwanted juice grapes and instead grow vinifera varieties is a good public investment.
Getting everyone like-minded on this issue will take some serious public relations work by grape growers. But unlike tobacco farmers, they have a product that's highly regarded by the public. That means it's easier for governments to rally around — at least, for now. So, now is the time to press on.
Meanwhile, the grape-growing industry is taking other steps to try to chart out its future. Also last week, it announced the formation of the Ontario Grape and Wine Research Foundation, to focus on research and innovation and to promote growth and sustainability of the province's wineries and its growers. Among its advisers are researchers at the University of Guelph, who have expertise in everything from production to marketing.