KINGSTON — Dairy farmer Curtis Walt started paying close attention to Doug Ford months before the Progressive Conservative leader steered his party to electoral victory on June 7.
Walt says Ford’s message during the PC leadership race resonated with him and his fellow farmers in Prince Edward County. He thought Ford represented a credible path to victory for the Tories — that he could win both the vote-rich suburbs of Toronto and the rural ridings of southern Ontario.
“I think he already knew he had the 613 [area code] in his back pocket, because we’ve been voting Conservative for years,” Walt says. “He didn’t even have to come down here when he was campaigning. He already knew that he had all this wrapped up.”
But Ford did campaign in rural districts, and he made a promise to farmers. At a May 23 campaign stop in Essex County, and again two weeks later in London, he told supporters that he would appoint a farmer as minister of agriculture if the PCs were to form government — in contrast to the Liberals, who never appointed a person with direct farming experience to run the agriculture portfolio during their 15 years in power.
Some farmers listened with interest. “That’s a huge positive, if we get someone in cabinet who actually understands agriculture — especially from a producer level,” says Mark Davis, a cash-crop and hog producer from Lennox and Addington County. “[Ford] says he’s going to support agriculture. Let’s hope his word is as good as he says.”
Allison Shannon, who runs Sun Harvest Greenhouses, in Glenburnie, with her husband, Greg, agrees that having a farmer in cabinet could be a boon for rural Ontario. Shannon would prefer “somebody that can really understand the intricacies and subtleties of our businesses and communicate that effectively with their caucus colleagues.” As sitting vice-president of the Frontenac Federation of Agriculture, she says continuing work on a provincial soil-quality strategy should be a priority.
It’s been almost two decades since a farmer has been in charge of the agriculture portfolio. Ernie Hardeman, a Tory MPP from Oxford County, owned and operated an agricultural business before entering provincial politics in 1995. Hardeman was agriculture minister from 1999 to 2001 under Mike Harris. The 70-year-old won a seat for the seventh straight election on June 7, and could very well be on Ford’s shortlist for the post.
A few others in the PC caucus have some farming bona fides.
Before being elected to represent Huron–Bruce in 2011, Lisa Thompson served as general manager of the Ontario Dairy Goat Co-operative and was chair of the Ontario 4-H Foundation.
Toby Barrett, who represents Haldimand–Norfolk (and has since 1995), has a farming background and has also acted as the party’s agriculture critic.
Monte McNaughton, though not a farmer himself, has deep connections to the farming community in his Lambton–Kent–Middlesex riding thanks to a family-owned business that sold (among other things) auto and farm supplies in Newbury.
Asked if the party will stick to Ford’s promise of appointing a farmer to cabinet, and who from the caucus might fit the bill, the PCs responded in a statement to TVO.org: “The Premier-designate is working with the transition team to build a strong cabinet who will work with him to implement our plan for the people."
Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), says he is often asked about the significance of having a farmer in the role of agriculture minister. He says helping farmers isn’t as simple as just putting one in cabinet.
“While that would be nice to see,” says Currie, an eighth-generation farmer from the Collingwood area, “what we're really looking for — not only as minister of agriculture, but in all ministries — is to have good people in most positions.”
The OFA, an organization representing 37,000 farmers across the province, has been pushing for improved infrastructure in rural areas. “[Ford] did mention rural broadband and natural-gas infrastructure money during the campaign, so we're going to certainly hold his feet to the fire on that,” Currie says.
Back in Prince Edward County, Walt knows just how complex and challenging it can be to make a living as a farmer in 2018. He does some excavating on the side and sells firewood to make ends meet. “Farmers had a rough couple of years there,” he says, referring to a drought in 2016, a flood in 2017, and rising hydro and fuel costs. Walt felt that he and other farmers were being left behind by the Liberal government.
While Queen’s Park watchers await the appointment of a new cabinet, Walt and other dairy farmers have Canada-U.S. trade on their minds. During ongoing NAFTA negotiations, U.S. President Donald Trump has attacked Canada’s supply management system. He calls it unfair to American dairy farmers and has threatened to escalate a trade war between the two countries.
Walt says the time is now for Ford and MPPs of every stripe to defend Ontario dairy farmers from the “bully” Trump.
“Leave the bickering, in-fighting, and party politics behind. Stand up for Canada,” Walt says. “As long as Ford stays true to that, he’s got my support.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Allison Shannon's husband as Glen. His name is Greg.
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