French's using Leamington tomatoes in all its ketchup

Tomatoes from Leamington, Ont., farmers will be used in ketchup once again, more than a year after Heinz pulled its operations out of the town.

'You get great tomatoes in southwest Ontario'

French's ketchup will be made with tomatoes from Leamington, Ont. (French's )

Tomatoes grown by Leamington, Ont. farmers will be used in ketchup once again, more than a year after Heinz pulled its operations out of the town.

French's, most famous for its mustard, is producing ketchup and company president Elliott Penner promises to use only tomatoes grown in the self-proclaimed Tomato Capital of Canada and other parts of southwestern Ontario.

"It just makes sense," Penner said in a phone interview with CBC News. "It's a simple model that says 'get the best possible ingredient.' And guess what? You get great tomatoes in southwest Ontario."

Penner, who grew up near Cambridge, Ont., said French's often works with Canadian farmers. The company uses mustard seeds from Saskatchewan in its mustard, for example.

"Canadians make the best mustard seeds available at a fair price," Penner said. "When we got into the tomato business we thought that was something we could do as well."

French's will get its tomato paste from Highbury Canco in Leamington and ship it to Toronto and the U.S. where it will be used in ketchup. A facility in Toronto manufactures the food services ketchup. What ends up for sale on grocery store shelves will be made at a plant in Ohio.

In 2014, ketchup giant Heinz pulled up stakes in Leamington, leaving many tomato farmers without a customer.

Heinz announced the closure in November 2013. It ended production in June 2014. 

Highbury Canco eventually stepped in to pack some products under the Heinz label. Ketchup isn't one of them, however.

Even though Highbury Canco bought the 106-year-old Leamington factory and took over some canning operations from Heinz, some farmers there have been unable to get back into the tomato market because fewer tomato products are being processed in the former Heinz plant.

More tomatoes needed. 

Bill Rhodes is one of those tomato farmers. After losing the Heinz work he needed to switch from growing tomatoes to seed corn.

"Losing the tomato business, I've had to let some help go," Rhodes said. "Tomatoes are a very labour intensive crop, but I didn't sell my machinery, hoping somebody else would come to the game."   

Tomatoes are harvested in Leamington, Ont. in this file photo. Leamington farmers will be supplying tomatoes for French's (CBC)

With French's move to ketchup, he's been able to go back to growing tomatoes, meaning he can count on getting anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 per acre of crop before expenses.

"Growing a crop like tomatoes, you know the price you're going to get for the crop before you grow it, before you plant it," Rhodes said.

Farmers sign a contract before the growing season.

"The only wildcard is mother nature," Rhodes said.

Rhodes has spoken with Penner about French's foray into the ketchup market — which includes barbecue and garlic-flavoured sauces — and said he's optimistic about the business venture.

"[With Leamington] being a tomato town, this is a great fit," he said. 

With files from Stacey Janzer