The head of the Ontario Alliance of Food Processors says there is “a glimmer of hope” for the future of the Heinz plant in Leamington.
Steve Peters, a former Liberal MPP and one-time agriculture minister, said he’s talked with two companies that currently import tomato paste from California and that may be interested in the plant.
Last week, H. J. Heinz Co. announced it would close the 104-year-old plant in mid-2014. The move will put 740 full-time employees out of work and have a ripple effect through the local agriculture sector.
“I see a glimmer of hope,” Peters said. “I think there’s some tremendous opportunity here.”
On Friday Peters spoke with his "good friend" Sandra Pupatello, the CEO of the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation, and Leamington Mayor John Paterson.
Paterson is tentatively scheduled to meet with Heinz officials Friday.
“There’s a lot of people doing everything they possibly can to find a positive outcome,” Peters said.
Peters is calling on both the province and Ottawa to find a way to help encourage growth in the agri-business sector.
“They’ve been good at supporting the auto industry, historically. Here’s a tremendous opportunity to support an old industry and put that old industry on a new footing going forward,” he said. “The economy of Ontario doesn’t just drive on four wheels.”
Peters suggested a “strategic investment fund” of some sort. He said capital is an important part of growing the industry.
Last month, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne called on the province’s agri-business sector to double its workforce by 2020.
Friday, when addressing the Heinz closure, she denied that Leamington is dead in the wake of the plant’s closure.
“In terms of Heinz involvement, I’m not sure there’s a way to salvage that. But that plant, can there be an option and a future for that plant? My hope is yes,” she said Friday. “We will be trying to find a way to transform that.”
Wynne also said she had “previous conversations a number of times with officials from Heinz.”
Wynne will be in Windsor-Essex on Friday when she delivers a keynote speech to the Windsor Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Peters said Heinz was “a cornerstone” of Ontario’s food processing sector.
“We have to find a way to replace that,” he said.
Idea of co-op also pitched
Peters also suggested a co-op of tomato farmers come together and make it work. He referenced the IGPC Ethanol Inc. in Aylmer, Ont. IGPC is wholly owned by Integrated Grain Processors Co-operative Inc., one of the largest agricultural co-operatives in Ontario.
"I see no reason why we couldn’t bring all the players together to look at the creation of some sort of co-op. It could be positive for growers and processers," Peters said. "We have to pursue it, there’s too much at stake."
A Facebook group is also suggesting a co-op. The page Save the Heinz Factory in Leamington Ontario has 2,332 likes.
"We are trying to find new investors for Leamington or to form a co operative with farmers and investors with your help," reads the group's description.
"Need to find investors in a town called Leamington. We have tons of tomatoes, the town is the Tomato Capital. We have the manpower, the land and some good ideas. Why not make our own sauce?" a post reads. "Tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, why not?"