Growing up on the family farm in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, Mark Eyking often heard his Dutch immigrant parents talk about the hunger and war they had left behind in Europe.
“Democracy and food were always the main topics around the table at home,” he recalled during an interview.
Both those messages obviously resonated as the boy grew to a man.
With his brothers and parents, Eyking is involved in running one of Nova Scotia’s largest farms. In 1990, he and wife Pamela were named Nova Scotia’s Outstanding Young Farmers.
He operates the fruit and vegetable side of the farm that also includes 100,000 laying hens, a beef cattle operation and a flock of sheep. Outdoor and greenhouse produce is sold in the Atlantic provinces and abroad.
Lately, Eyking has been selling greenhouse technology and knowledge abroad as well.
“Farming, growing food, is my passion,” he said.
Now at age 40, the second half of the “democracy and food” equation is also beginning to flower.
Since last November, he has been the rookie Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria and a rising person in the Liberal caucus.
Eyking’s farm background led to his appointment as a member of the House of Commons agriculture committee, although his riding is not agricultural. His experience as an international trader led to a seat on the prestigious foreign affairs and trade committee.
And last week, the prime minister appointed him vice-chair of the Liberal task force created to develop a long-term agricultural policy.
Not bad for a farmer-businessperson who, less than six months ago, had no real plan to enter politics.
He knew local Liberals were checking him out as a high profile local businessperson active in the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, the provincial horticultural society and various local groups.
He had talked in spring 2000 with transport minister David Collenette, who was in Nova Scotia to meet with Eyking and fellow board members of Marine Atlantic. But there had been no commitments and he was not politically active.
On Oct. 20, the eve of last year’s election call, Eyking was cutting broccoli. A local Liberal organizer drove into the yard and asked him if he would run for the nomination.
His family agreed, Eyking ran and won the nomination, then took the riding back for the Liberals by 5,000 votes. The Liberals had lost it by 11,000 votes in 1997.
Soon, he was caught in the swirl of learning his new job and how he could juggle the farm and politics.
He got to Ottawa and quickly found himself in a debate over farm aid.
“I have been quite impressed by the calibre of people in the House of Commons and in the level of the debate,” he said. In the end, despite opposition and farmer demands for more, he supported the government decision to make $500 million available in emergency aid.
He voted in the Commons March 20 against a Canadian Alliance call for more aid, even though some Liberals had been calling for the same thing.
“I wasn’t going to dance to someone else’s tune.”
Eyking said his political interest is more in long-term agricultural policy than short-term fixes. In fact, the rookie MP takes an unsentimental view of agriculture.
The biggest issue in his economically depressed riding is the declining coal industry. He has watched thousands of miners displaced, despite government efforts over the years to keep the mines open.
“As they did in the coal industry, so we have to do in agriculture,” he said. “We have to ask some tough questions. Will market conditions really sustain all the people there now? Where are we going in this industry?”
Eyking described himself as a conservative Liberal in the Paul Martin camp of fiscal conservatism.
He also is a fan of Eugene Whelan and supply management.
“I totally believe in supply management,” he said. “When it came in, a big weight was lifted off my father’s shoulders.”
He feels the same way, unburdened, every weekend when he gets back to the farm and his family in Cape Breton. The farm — 1,000 acres owned and 1,000 acres rented — sits on Boulardarie Island in the middle of Little Bras d’Or Lake. It has a micro-climate well suited to growing vegetables.
More than 300 years ago, Eyking’s land was being used to grow vegetables for the French garrison at Louisbourg.
“It has history and beauty,” he said. “I just love living in Cape Breton.”