By Peter Davey
Hundreds of Heinz factory workers in Leamington Ontario are coping with the devastating news that they will soon be out of work.
The huge H.J. Heinz factory covers over 1.2 million square feet and employs 740 full-time workers. It was announced on November 14 that Heinz would cease operations at the plant by June 2014.
“The Heinz company is the largest employer in Leamington,” Leamington Mayor John Paterson told Humber News. However the job losses extend far beyond the town.
The town’s economic development officer estimates that for every job lost at the food processing plant, three to three-and-a-half jobs will also be lost said Mayor Paterson.
The network which supplies the factory includes not only farmers, but equipment suppliers, truck drivers, labellers, canners, fertilizer producers and numerous other businesses. “It just keeps going,” said Mayor Paterson. “This is a huge impact to our entire area.”
Corey Versnel is chairman of the Essex County Associated Growers, an organization representing fresh fruit and vegetable producers. He also used to grow tomatoes for Heinz a number of years ago. He said the financial impact on tomato growers who supplied Heinz is severe.
“There are guys who have equipment investments of up to $200,000 to $400,000 dollars and some have purchased newer equipment,” said Versnel to Humber News. “It’s a real kick in the teeth, you’ve got a quarter of a million-dollar equipment sitting there, which is basically useless.”
Versnel explains that roma tomatoes which are destined for tomato paste and ketchup, require specialized mechanized harvesting equipment. Heinz consumes about half of the tomatoes grown in the area.
“Farmers can switch,” said Versnel. “There are fresh vegetables you can get into, there some other processing crops, but for tomatoes, that’s the end of that.”
Approximately 57 farmers are affected by losing the contract with Heinz and they have voiced their concerns said Rick Nicholls, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex.
“Farmers based on contracts have been providing tomatoes to H.J. Heinz for years,” Nicholls told Humber News.
“So because of that they go out and buy large farming equipment. Now they are saying ‘I don’t have these contracts anymore, how am I going to pay for my equipment?’”
The next step that government needs to take is to “re-group” said Nicholls.
“Right now we need to re-group and put together a plan of action that first of all ensures that the people directly involved, that is the employees of H.J. Heinz, will be able to land on their feet.”
The plant itself may be the answer to questions about jobs and the region’s economy, but Mayor Paterson doesn’t know what Heinz plans to do with it.
The plant has “too many pluses to sit idle” said Mayor Paterson, explaining that it is only 40 minutes from the American border and has “unlimited” uses.
Both Nicholls and the Mayor mentioned private investors are being approached to work out a deal with the plant.
“If we can find investors to come in and work a deal with the Heinz plant and keep that up and running as a processing plant, maybe we can answer our own questions in that regard,” said Mayor Paterson.
Nicholls told Humber News that since 2003 Chatham-Kent alone has lost over 10,000 manufacturing jobs and “doesn’t want to lose another processing plant.”
“Private investors are being approached probably right now to see what they might be able to offer.”
Versnel too is anxious to learn about the plant’s fate. There are a number of processing factories in the area that deal with tomatoes, but most only have enough capacity for one farmer.
“You like to see something in your area that is grown locally, processed locally and consumed locally,” said Versnel. “And now this has been done away with.”
While it has been a tremendous blow to Leamington and the surrounding area, Mayor Paterson told Humber News he felt more optimistic today.
“The province has already stepped forward and the federal government has also been in touch with me,” said Mayor Paterson.
“There are a lot of positives happening right now, but we just have to keep the ball rolling and see what we can do.
“We get knocked down every once in a while but we get right back out. I think our town will handle this.”