Ontario needs experienced ag minister in sector facing challenges

The campaigning may be over and the votes have been counted, but election chatter is still in full force as Ontario comes to terms with June 12’s surprise result. 


In a stunning victory, Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals decimated their opponents, winning a majority in an election pollsters had claimed was too close to call. 


Wynne becomes the first female premier elected in Ontario and the first lesbian premier elected in Canada. 


So where does she go from here?


Over the next four years, Wynne can put her mark on a province that is facing high pockets of unemployment, transit gridlock, a struggling manufacturing sector and a ballooning deficit, currently sitting at $329 billion. These are all issues for which Wynne has promised to find solutions.


However, Ontario’s farming community has an additional pressing issue: who will be the province’s agriculture minister? 


For the past two and a half years, Wynne, who hails from Toronto, has served as both premier and agriculture minister.


While her decision to represent a field widely unfamiliar to her was heralded by some as a way to reconnect with rural regions, most folks who live in those communities hold a different view.


At the time of her appointment, many farmers, industry stakeholders and rural advocates charged there was no way the premier would be able to balance both the intrinsic complexities of the agriculture portfolio and the demands of premiership. 


Agriculture minister, they said, was already (and remains) a full-time job. 


It’s not that industry doesn’t recognize the amount of time and effort the premier has put into trying to learn about agriculture. 


Folks who have been invited to farmer roundtables and tours insist Wynne asks a lot of good questions about the file and is interested in hearing from stakeholders. 


Still, others can’t help but point to a handful of times over the past two years where the agriculture minister should have reacted but didn’t. 


When ketchup giant Heinz an-nounced it was closing its large tomato processing plant in Leamington, Ont., the minister refused to comment on the situation until the next day. 


The premier has also yet to visit Kemptville College, one of two agriculture colleges in the eastern part of the province threatened by closure. Many in the region have viewed her lack of a visit as a snub.


With pressure mounting on the industry to double agriculture’s contribution to the province’s gross domestic product by 2020 (a challenge issued by Wynne herself), the general consensus among farm folks is the next cabinet should field a new agriculture minister, preferably one with a farming or rural background. 


The problem is, Wynne doesn’t have many options. 


Liberal support is concentrated in urban centres, particularly around her hometown of Toronto. One glance at an election map shows most of the province’s rural regions went blue, opting for Tim Hudak’s Conservatives. 


There are, as always, a few exceptions. Rural MPP Grant Crack, Wynne’s second in command on the agriculture file, will return to Queen’s Park. Crack, who represents the riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell an hour east of Ottawa, has been heavily involved in the Kemptville College fight alongside several Conservative MPPs. 


Former agriculture minister and longtime MPP Ted McMeekin is also likely on the short list, as is Jeff Leal, whose most recent cabinet post was as rural affairs minister.


Whichever way Wynne decides to represent agriculture in her cabinet, be it by keeping the post herself or giving it to someone else, one thing is for certain: her choice will be met with heavy scrutiny from an industry juggling several challenges at once.


Ontario’s food processing sector continues to waffle, the horse racing industry is still floundering, land and energy prices are soaring, pork producers are still threatened by the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and calls to protect bees are growing louder by the day. 


Also clear, once appointed, the new agriculture minister will be expected to do nothing less than roll up his or her sleeves and get to work.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.