Southwestern Ontario tomato yields now match Heinz heyday

Farmers in the region expect to grow 525,000 tonnes of tomatoes in 2016, which is well above the 384,000 tonnes produced when Heinz shut down its Leamington processing plant.

Many farmers in the region have capacity to grow even more, says industry expert

More tomato farmers are signing contracts to grow for Highbury CanCo, the company that took over the Heinz production facility in Leamington, Ont. (File Photo)

Demand for southwestern Ontario tomatoes has now hit levels not seen since Heinz produced ketchup at its Leamington processing plant.

Farmers in the region expect to grow 525,000 tonnes of tomatoes in 2016, according to the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers.

That figure, based on contracts reported by farmers, sits well above volumes grown in 2014 when Heinz shuttered its facility and headed to the US. In that year, farmers saw production drop to 384,000 tonnes, a significant reduction from the Heinz heyday.

Here's a look at tomato production in southern Ontario as provided by the growers association:

  • 2012 — 527,000 tonnes.
  • 2013 — 508,000 tonnes (last full year Heinz was in Leamington).
  • 2014 — 384,000 tonnes.
  • 2015 — 447,000 tonnes.
  • 2016 — 525,000 tonnes (projection based on contracts with farmers).

And there's plenty of room to grow more, should demand for Ontario tomatoes continue to increase, explained John Mumford, general manager of the vegetable growers group that tracks annual production yields.

"Absolutely. No question," Mumford said. "There's a lot more acreage that's suitable for tomato production. There's no doubt about it."

Room for more growth

The annual average volume for tomato production since 2009, and before Heinz left, is about 525,000. But there were a couple banner seasons in southwestern Ontario when farmers produced an estimated 650,000 tonnes, Mumford said.

There is potential for more growth now that several food companies have learned the value of sourcing Canadian tomatoes. French's was the first to feel the love of consumers, who backed the company solely for using tomato paste made from tomatoes grown by farmers in and around Leamington.

Then, Canadian company Sun-Brite got into the game by producing a Primo brand ketchup in its Ruthven facility and laying sole claim to being the only 100 per cent Canadian ketchup on the market. Primo ketchup uses Ontario tomatoes, labour and packaging.

If the consumer follows through on its patriotic promise to support locally sourced products, then farmers can expect to grow a lot more tomatoes, explained Mumford.

Staying alive

The success of Highbury Canco, the company that took over the Heinz plant and has been growing its tomato paste production ever since, is a significant reason for the resurging tomato demand.

The company has upped its production levels every year with several farmers getting new contracts this year.

A low Canadian dollar also helps with making the region's tomatoes more attractive to food processors, Mumford said. With the value of the loonie falling well below the US dollar, to depths not seen in years, there should be no surprise more companies are buying from Ontario.