Farmers, grocers fear the worst as province launches review of Ontario Food Terminal

These days, the normally cheerful community within the Ontario Food Terminal is clouded by an air of uncertainty, because the facility is currently under review by the Ford government.

Review consists of advisory group and independent third-party report

Steve Bamford says as a wholesaler, he will lose his independent grocer customers if the terminal is shut down or relocated. (Talia Ricci/CBC News)

From the outside, it looks like a relatively normal day at the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke.

On the inside, the massive warehouse is cold. Everyone working inside the 16-hectare site on this chilly May morning is wearing jackets and many are wearing toques and gloves while they push flats of tomatoes, golden delicious apples and human-sized bags of carrots into waiting trucks.

But it's not just the fog hanging over nearby Humber Bay that's clouding the atmosphere at the terminal. The province's recent announcement that its "exploring options" to "modernize" the facility has the thousands of farmers, wholesalers and independent grocers who do business there every day worried.

Tomatoes sit stacked in a box waiting to be sold at the Ontario Food Terminal. The site acts like a 'stock exchange' for produce, where buyers and sellers can negotiate prices based on market value, the terminal's website says. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

"I've never seen anything like this before," said farmer Charles Welsh. "I know it's come up in government before, but never has anyone been as concerned about it as they are right now."

The review, consisting of an advisory group with members of the agri-food industry, as well as the writing of an independent third-party report, just began and will only conclude later this summer.

The concern of many at the terminal may come from the recent cost-saving measures outlined in the Ford Government's April budget. Cuts to healthcare, schools, libraries and a tree planting program are just some of those changes. That may be an indication of what the province has in mind when it's talking about "exploring options to ensure the long-term success of the Ontario Food Terminal for farmers, businesses, and taxpayers."

2 billion pounds of produce a year

The Ontario Food Terminal, near the corner of The Queensway and Park Lawn Road, was established in 1954 and is the largest wholesale fruit and produce distribution centre in Canada, and the third largest in North America. It covers the equivalent of 20 Canadian football fields.

More than two billion pounds of produce moves through the terminal annually.

The site, which is only open to wholesalers, has a 1.6-hectare farmer's market area with 550 stalls for sellers to show their produce in a kind of "stock exchange," according to the terminal's website. Buyers and sellers can negotiate prices depending on that day's supply and demand. 

Trucks are parked at the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke. An average of 5.6 million pounds of produce is moved through the facility every day. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

There's a 100,000-square-foot central cold storage area, and visitors have access to two on-site restaurants.

The facility directly and indirectly employs approximately 170,000 people, according to Bruce Nicholas, general manager of the Ontario Food Terminal Board.

He's unworried by the review, and said he's "happy the ministry is involved." He explained that the Ontario Food Terminal Board, which runs the terminal, has been examining the future of the site "all along."

"We're so well known in the world," Nicholas said. "So why would anyone be worried when everyone knows, we're the best market there?"

Potential sale worries grocers

Steve Bamford, the vice president of the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, put his finger on the worst-case scenario — the potential sale of the land.

"There's 5,000 customers that come down to the terminal, we will lose a good majority of them if they move the terminal or close it down," explained Bamford. Wholesalers and farmers have started a petition online, 

Will Willemsen, owner of Sunripe Stores, is more direct.

"Any change to the food terminal would put us out of business," he said. 

Ernie Hardeman, the minister of food and agriculture, fielded questions about the possible changes at Queen's Park on Thursday. He would neither confirm nor deny the possibility the site would be sold or whether the terminal would be moved.

"I can assure people that we will have a food terminal going forward," Hardeman told reporters.

But questions still swirl around what the term "modernizing" — used in the budget released in April — actually means. Hardeman's answers are unclear.

"When we look forward to the next 25 years, what do we need to do to make sure we are still up-to-date and that the food terminal serves all the people?" Hardeman asked, by way of answering.

Marcus Koornneef, a wholesaler, says he's looking for 'an answer' from the Ford government about what the review will mean for his future. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Wholesalers and farmers have been gathering signatures for a petition aimed at preserving the facility's success. Wholesaler Marcus Koornneef said the lack of information is the most unsettling thing about the Ford government's announcement.

"There's been a lot of talk, a lot of concerns … Everyone seems to have a different story or wants to believe something different," he said.

Koornneef said he has more than 20 Ontario farmers relying on him to sell their produce.

"Everyone is looking for an answer, a truth."