When the ketchup runs out, relish? The Leamington Heinz plant closure’s Plan B

After 100 years of ketchup making, closure of the Heinz plant in Leamington, Ontario is bad news indeed.

No rural community in Ontario can withstand 740 direct job losses without widespread suffering.  The spin-off effects will be felt by everyone in the region.  The local Chamber of Commerce estimates that 95% of its member businesses will be affected.

No one saw it coming because nothing in Leamington had changed prior to the announcement.  The soil and climate of Essex County, which is on roughly the same latitude as California’s northern border, was as productive as usual.  Tomatoes grew abundantly, just as they always had.  The price and demand for ketchup seemed to be holding steady at local grocery stores.  And Heinz kept its intentions secret from the community where it had sourced and processed its product for the past century.

Leamington held its Tomato Festival this year, the same as always, with home-made floats and red clad brass bands marching down Talbot Street.  During harvest time, the southbound lane of Erie Street was happily jammed with heaped wagons of tomatoes on their way to sorting and crushing at the Heinz plant.  And year round, Leamington had its daily “rush-minutes,” as shifts at the plant ended and workers drove home.

But unseen to the townsfolk, corporate decisions in faraway places were about to end all this.  Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital purchased Heinz earlier this year, and McDonalds Corp. recently changed their ketchup supplier.   Daubs of someone else’s ketchup were adorning the millions of burgers being gobbled all over America.  Tomatoes grown somewhere else, by someone else, were going into that ketchup.  Leamington’s days as a condiment capital were numbered.

This is just bad news, plain and simple, and there’s no silver lining here unless the leaders of the town and the county look for one, with help from their regional, provincial, and federal partners.  That’s understandably difficult while everyone’s still in shock, but here are some ideas and options that have remained since we studied and made recommendations to Essex County about a decade ago.

Point PeleeLeamington is home to Point Pelee National Park.  No national park in Canada accommodates more visitors relative to its size.  Last year it attracted 275,000 visits, including many affluent birders willing to travel great distances to glimpse migrating flocks and rare specimens.

Point pelee pointThe Park has been struggling ecologically in part because of the intensive farming practices required to meet industry demand for high volume, low cost field crops.  Heinz may have been the biggest local food processor, and tomatoes the biggest crop, but the customers for everything grown in the Leamington area were applying the same pressure to produce food more for less money.

All but 6% of Essex County’s ground cover had been cleared for agriculture, industry, or residential development.  Leamington also boasts the highest concentration of industrial greenhouses in the world.  Little remains of the natural world outside of park land and fringe areas.

Unlike the rest of Canada, fields around Leamington can produce multiple harvests in a good year.  A family can survive on only 60 acres.  So the land there is worked hard, with whatever irrigation, fertilization, pesticides, and drainage will improve the yield.

Point Pelee National Park is very vulnerable to groundwater pollution from these farming techniques.  It also suffers from genetic isolation.  Ground species were effectively cut off from other populations by the farms bordering the Park.  In the delicately balanced ecology that makes the Park precious, a loss of ground species could trigger a decline in the 350 species of birds and for which it is most famous.  This biological tipping point has been uncomfortably close for years.

The Park is also famous for the annual massing of Monarch butterflies as they prepare for their amazing migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.  Every fall there is a count of the butterflies resting in the branches of the trees before they leave in clouds to cross southward over Lake Erie.   In 2013, the count was cancelled.  There weren’t enough butterflies left and those that remained were not to be disturbed.

This is by no means a low point for the Park.  It has already been pulled back from the brink by decades of steady stewardship.  Land has been repurposed and its ecological integrity has been stabilized.  This has required firm policies regarding visitor activity combined with painstaking effort by Point Pelee’s staff.  It’s a national success story, as far as it goes.

But for the past 10 years Park Superintendent, Marian Stranak, and her staff have struggled with more than genetic isolation.  Political and economic isolation are also a fact of life for Point Pelee.  For one thing, it’s a national park, which removes it from the daily concerns of local and provincial government.  It is not only funded from Ottawa, many if not most of its visitors come from outside the immediate area, and so are not constituents that local politicians have to worry about.  Surrounding businesses depend on agriculture and the food processing industry, which are generally at odds with the principles and practices of environmental preserves like national parks.  So it has been very difficult for Point Pelee to establish its needs and opportunities on the agendas of local government and business, despite the economic benefits it provides, and that fact that it would be even more beneficial but for the lack of coordination with local government and business.

There are many, many examples of how coordinated planning of local land use, environmental practices, hospitality services, and tourism marketing could make Point Pelee into a driver of economic renewal for Leamington and Essex County.  If the Park, in its current condition, can attract 275,000 visits, what might it accomplish for local residents if a strategic decision were made by all stakeholders to give tourists the same consideration they give tomatoes?

Food will always be grown in the fertile fields of Essex County, but now it’s worth considering how restoration of some wetlands and Carolinian forest could be a wise investment for the future.  Intelligent planning around the Park could make it the anchor of a burgeoning recreational and eco-tourist attraction.

Perhaps the loss of the Heinz plant will cause people in power to recognize the undeveloped economic potential of the national park and move it to the top of their planning agendas.  There’s no reason to end the annual harvest celebrations, but it’s time to get real about Point Pelee, which continues to deliver hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region.  It could deliver more tourists and more revenue could be captured by the local economy if residents demand that their planners and policy makers diversify their tomato-centric thinking.  The Heinz plan has certainly been a boon to Leamington, but the gods have bestowed more than one gift on the region, and it’s time to pay some attention to the other.

In economic terms, it’s not a choice between tomatoes and tourists.  The tomatoes will keep coming, but planning and investment is required to build the tourism industry around the national park and the region’s other natural assets.  Climate and geology are as advantageous to eco-tourists, especially birders, as they are to tomatoes.

When the people of Leamington answer the central question, “where will tomorrow’s jobs come from?” perhaps they’ll appreciate the opportunities presented by Point Pelee National Park and the extraordinary biodiversity that has survived elsewhere in the region.  That may not address all that has been lost with the closure of Heinz, but it’s a good place to start the recovery.


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