Fruit, vegetable farmers fight for market share

Guilt is a powerful tactic, but it's proven in the past to be ineffective for getting Ontarians to buy homegrown products.

Sure, the province would be better off if consumers patronized Ontario farmers, manufacturers, clothiers, and so on. And angry producers have chided their neighbours, imploring them to consider the ripple effect of buying cheap imported products rather than ones made at home where you can actually see them grown, manufactured or assembled.

However, this may be a matter of competition, as much as it provincial or national pride. We are so influenced by the abundance of riches and variety south of the border that our expectations are North American, not just Canadian or Ontarian.

If something's going to cost more, it better be obvious why. The justification has to go beyond "because it's local, it's better," even when that's true. In our buy-on-price society, we talk about features but really want to see benefits, and if they're worth the extra dime.

Farmers get frustrated at this approach. They think it should be obvious to cost-conscious consumers why it costs more to produce food in our cold-weather climate than it does somewhere in the south, where animals can graze on grass most of their lives rather than have to be fed feed.

Or why fruit and vegetables cost more to grow here, in a province that tries to uphold labour, safety and environmental standards, than it does in a country where people work for peanuts and land stewardship is, for whatever reason, not a priority. Or why farmers are entitled to a decent living for keeping us fed.

But now, with grocery stores and farmers' markets teeming with Ontario produce, one group has moved from frustration, to action.

In this month's edition of The Grower, the feisty, free-wheeling tabloid from the Guelph-based Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, chair Brenda Lammens declares war on complacency.

Lammens, an asparagus grower from Langton, in Norfolk County, says Ontario's horticultural industry doesn't have what she calls a "sustainable comparative advantage in the marketplace anymore."

She says it must drive toward sustainability and be better than the rest, or face grim consequences.

She says research and innovation is key. She's calling for a big, united effort by farmers, by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and by the University of Guelph to help turn things around.

One thing farmers can do is look elsewhere at what works and try to get the province and the university to find way to adopt it here.

To that end, she and other association directors hit the road earlier this year as research teams, for points near and far, to find models, approaches and techniques that would work in Ontario.

Field studies are an important part of research by anyone looking for answers to thorny questions, and although a trip to a warm climate in the winter raises some eyebrows, it's also money well spent when an on-the-spot observation starts paying dividends.

That's where communications comes in. The directors looked into horticultural industries in New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, California and Washington, as well as British Columbia. Lammens says the horticultural industries there had all reached a point where something had to change, hard decisions were necessary and were implemented.

Lammens is getting ready to reveal what the research teams found and start discussions about how change could be implemented here.

Ontario's fruit and vegetable sector is diverse, vitally important to a society that values healthy eating, and well established. The association, which represents 28 smaller commodity-based farm organizations (such as the asparagus growers) celebrates its 150th anniversary in January 2009 in Niagara Falls.

Let's hope research, innovation and working with the province and the University of Guelph will give its producers some of the tools they need to regain their advantage.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.