Farmers in southwestern Ontario lament high hydro rates, increased labour costs

CHATHAM-KENT, Ont. — Jeff VanRoboys laments the Ontario government’s one-two punch that he says is hurting his cucumber harvesting business.

The 40-year-old farmer and entrepreneur says his company — The Pickle Station, located about 300 kilometres west of Toronto — has been hit hard by sky-high hydro rates and a recent increase in minimum wage.

“Those are my two biggest expenses to run the business and those are both government-controlled increases,” he says from his sprawling processing plant in Chatham-Kent.

The sorting lines and large harvesters at the plant sit idle on a warm spring day, with VanRoboys apologizing that things are so quiet. The time to see the operation firing on all cylinders, he says, is in the summer. That’s when the lines are fully staffed and the plant is buzzing. It’s also when high energy and labour costs hit the business the hardest.

When VanRoboys took over from his father in 2008, he says his hydro bill during the peak month of operation, August, was roughly $18,000. Fast forward to August 2017 and the bill for that same period was $42,000.

On top of that, the province’s decision to increase the minimum wage to $14 an hour has forced his business, which employs more than 200 local students during the busy harvesting months of July and August, to cut back on smaller, hand-picked cucumber varieties typically sold to U.S. companies.

VanRoboys says he explained to the American companies that he would need to increase prices to cope with higher labour costs — as the Liberal government had advised businesses to do — but was told that wouldn’t be accepted.

Whoever wins the provincial election on June 7, VanRoboys says they need to delay the next increase in minimum wage — planned to reach $15 an hour in January — to make it easier for businesses to adapt.

“The government is acting almost as a Robin Hood — you take from the rich and you give to the poor,” VanRoboys says. “The only thing I’d say is make sure that Robin Hood is actually rich before you go and try to rob.”

Chatham-Kent has an unemployment rate of six per cent, slightly higher than the provincial average of 5.5 per cent — the lowest rate in 20 years. But nearly 17,000 people, or one in 10, live below the poverty line, according to Statistics Canada.

Faced with public backlash, the Liberal government moved last year to slash hydro prices by 25 per cent, but many farmers in southwestern Ontario say they can’t make changes required under the time-of-use system to take advantage of off-peak discounts.

Harry Lawson, who grows cash crops near Thamesville, Ont., is one of them.

“If you’re drying corn or drying grain or something, you can’t just dry it overnight in the low periods,” the 64-year-old farmer says. “It has to run 24 hours a day.”

Louis Roesch, whose farm has been in his family since 1906, says he’s considering getting off the electricity grid altogether as an alternative to high bills, though it wouldn’t be easy.

His operation, home …read more

Source:: Nationalpost – News


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