Ontario Tomato Ketchup Goes Viral

I farm in tomato country.  Of course, there are lot of corn and soybeans in southwestern Ontario too.  Through the years we have always coexisted quite well.  In the early days I would be spray corn with dicamba and of course I had to be very careful around the tomatoes.  Now, there is a lot of glyphosate sprayed throughout tomato country and small plants have a very small tolerance.  So we have to be careful.  I can just imagine now that we have soybeans, which can be sprayed with a combination of glyphosate and dicamba of the problems that might be on the horizon.  Some things in agriculture never change.

With the Canadian dollar the way it is now and with our tomatoes being priced off California prices it is a very good time for tomato production in Ontario.  However, not everybody has seen it that way.  It was only back in 2014 that the tomato ketchup giant Heinz pulled out of Leamington Ontario.  This shook the whole industry on its ear as people wondered about the future of the tomato industry.  I was interviewed at the time several times saying that there would be other players fill the void and much would depend on the value of the Canadian dollar.  Needless to say, sometimes I get it right.  The Canadian dollar went into a nosedive and much of the tomato production has been regained through other processors.

At the time I was quite miffed at Heinz because it was simply a corporate play with share value and money.  Tomatoes have always been profitable here in Canada, partly because of our Canadian dollar but also because of the quality advantage we’ve always had.  So I asked my local grocer to replace Heinz ketchup with another brand. I didn’t quite get that accomplished, but it always bothered me that a company that did not show confidence in Ontario agriculture could still sell their product with impunity on our store shelves.

Interestingly enough, the same sentiment was expressed recently by a Mr. Brian Fernandez, whose post on Facebook went viral showing his personal mug with a bottle of French’s ketchup.  According to Mr. Fernandez, he was unaware that there was an all-Canadian condiment grown from Leamington Ontario tomatoes still on the market.  He said he absolutely loved it and said Bye Bye to Heinz.”  The viral post has had its effect with local stores in southern Ontario saying they are sold out of French’s ketchup.  Walmart doesn’t have any and French’s President is being quoted, as saying there is an upswing in sales.  Needless to say, it shows us the power of social media especially when it comes to our food choices.  Having a link to Ontario agriculture is particularly satisfying.

Of course, that takes me back to spraying along fence lines with tomatoes on the other side.  I often get to talk to my neighbors about tomatoes and their agricultural economics.  I’ve been told that you cannot compare the agricultural economics of tomatoes to the agricultural economics of grain.  First of all, tomatoes are a closed shop, not everybody can grow them.   Tomatoes are grown for a specific purpose like juice, paste or cocktail mixes with a specific market size.  Lots of times there are tomatoes disced under because the processor has enough at the end of season.  It is enough to make you cry, but that’s just how different things are for a food commodity versus grain.

Of course the other thing that is true is the premature death of Heinz ketchup on your store shelves.  Many Ontario tomato growers have told me that they hold such sway on shelf space with grocery stores almost everywhere.  So it was very easy to see why when I requested a different brand after the Leamington debacle, nothing happened.  It makes the viral post by Mr. Fernandez so much more significant.  He actually had a dent in the ketchup container.  Maybe, just maybe that Heinz shelf space will be affected and some big food conglomerate might think again when they decide to leave Ontario for whatever reason.

It shows the power of social media done when done correctly.  Of course, you can translate that into many other genres, case in point the current American presidential primaries where Mr. Trump has used social media effectively to lead the Republican pack.  Yes, that is a world different than tomatoes and ketchup and Ontario agriculture, but social media is increasingly playing a roll in our agricultural world too.

How that may manifest in the future is anybody’s guess.  I can see it affecting our food choices and maybe even some demand shifts, like the ketchup example.  Commodity trends won’t be affected as much, simply because of the nature of commodities.  They are bulky and indistinguishable from each other.  Corn is corn and soybeans are soybeans.  However, around the edges, consumers have choices and they are using social media.  Last week it was tomatoes; tomorrow it might be the next big thing.