Ontario election ideal time to put and keep agriculture in spotlight

In the weeks since Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne dropped the writ and called a provincial election for June 12, the former agriculture minister seemed almost reluctant to chat about agriculture issues.

Her focus instead was on Ottawa, and how she was the only person competent enough to protect Ontario and challenge prime minister Stephen Harper.

That is until she decided to drive a tractor during a recent campaign stop on a farm in Paris, Ont.

Then, it seemed, the only issue the provincial Tories (led by leader Tim Hudak) wanted to talk about was agriculture. Or rather, farm safety because Wynne was filmed driving an open cab tractor with farmer Sandra Vos standing on the sideboard next to her.

“Premier sets bad example,” the Tories proclaimed in an afternoon news release, insisting that as a former agriculture minister, Wynne should have known better.

“According to the health and safety guidelines for Ontario tobacco producers, farm tractors have killed 250 people on Ontario farms in a recent 15 year period. Many of the deaths have involved rollovers to the side or rear, extra passengers falling from the tractor and bystanders being run over,” the party said.

Ironically, Hudak was photographed driving a tractor with someone standing beside him during the International Plowing Match last September. While his campaign team insisted the tractor wasn’t moving, Liberal video from the event shows otherwise.

The incident, dubbed “Tractorgate” by the internet, went viral. Farmers, non-farmers and journalists all waded in with their opinions on Twitter. Most reactions equated to eyeball rolling.

Some charged the premier would have posed more of a threat to herself and everyone around her if Vos hadn’t been there to help guide her. Others brushed off the affair as nothing more than a major publicity stunt.

Whatever it was, suddenly agriculture was in the mainstream media, although probably not in the way Wynne had hoped.

Her announcement of $40 million over 10 years to create a fund to help farmers and processors buy equipment was largely overshadowed by the day’s tractor tiff.

For stakeholders in one of Ontario’s largest industries, though, the news was one of the first major campaign policy announcements made about agriculture.

While “Tractorgate” can be characterized as nothing more than political pandering, the incident and the uproar following it is indicative of something more.

Agriculture, and the world it en-compasses, is a subject few outside the industry understand.

We’ve heard it before. Fewer Canadians are growing up or working on the farm. Average consumers have little to no understanding of how their food gets from the farm to their forks.

While the industry continues to play a significant role in the country’s economy, few Canadians fully appreciate its connections to jobs, trade or everyday life.

In Ontario, most don’t know that the food processing sector contributes more to the provincial economy than the auto industry.

They don’t know that one in eight jobs in Canada is linked to agriculture in some way, that one Ontario farm can produce enough food to feed 120 people or that energy is the No. 1 input cost for the province’s farmers.

Wynne, as a premier, an agriculture minister and an urbanite, has a chance to change this.

Agricultural issues should be discussed in campaign conversations on and off the farm.

Several farm groups, including the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, are pushing for a leaders debate solely on agriculture and agriculture related issues: high energy input costs, processing capacity, agricultural training and food security, to name a few.

It would be the first debate dedicated solely to agriculture, food and rural issues in recent memory. The debate is still in its planning stages and won’t be televised, although there’s talk of streaming it online.

No date has been set and only one leader, Mike Schreiner of the Green Party, has agreed to participate.

Still, if the debate manages to get off the ground, it’s a start.

The fact of the matter is that agriculture (thanks to a tractor and the internet) has managed to wade its way into the main election chatter.

Now, it’s time for all parties to figure out a way to keep it there.

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