Liberals will have their hands full with farm issues

Ontario's election results suggest there's agreement among farmers, and many others, that the status quo is just fine.

The governing Liberals have been returned, along with the former cabinet minister for agriculture, Leona Dombrowsky, who on behalf of the province brokered the recent deal with Ontario farmers for an insurance program they coveted.

Farm issues — and others– were basically invisible during the recent provincial election campaign, and most farmers didn't seem to mind, although frankly they were more intent on getting their harvests off the field than following provincial politics.

But those who grow grains and oilseeds (which constitute most Ontario farmers) had already made a strong political statement a few weeks before the election, when their member associations bought a full-page ad in Ontario's weekly farm newspaper, thanking minister Dombrowsky and the McGuinty government for their participation in the insurance plan.

Some observers said it was bad timing for farmers, because it gave Liberal strategists a green light to ignore farm issues such as environmental regulations, energy and transportation costs, and rural-urban relations. And there's no question that as the campaign rolled along, none of the parties really paid much attention to agriculture.

But farmers weren't demanding much attention, either.

Some were quietly hoping the electoral reform referendum would pass, and a new farm-specific movement or party might rise up. Ontario has a rich history of farming being connected to politics. But for now, that's a dead issue, with Ontario rejecting reform. However, there's likely enough impetus in the province to bring it back in four years in another incarnation, better explained and more broadly understood. There's lots of time to get organized and take a position, if that's what rural Ontario wants to do.

And that's what voters in small pockets of Ontario did, in conventional ways. Near Kingston, for example, they put their faith in rural reform candidate Randy Hillier, running as a Progressive Conservative, with a 1,000-vote margin over his Liberal contender.

Hillier, a rural electrician, is well-known in farm circles for leading the "Back Off Government" grassroots movement a few years ago. Now, he's staring government in the face.

If he develops a taste for Queen's Park – which it appears he's trying to do now, and work for change within the system, by running for one of the traditional parties — he'll keep the next agriculture minister busy answering prickly and prodding questions. So will some of the long-standing rural conservatives, such as Toby Barrett and Ernie Hardeman.

Ontario may have a Liberal majority, but in agriculture and rural affairs, they won't have a free pass.

Maybe it's fitting then, that the premier is getting ready to name his new cabinet in the aftermath of World Food Day (October 16), and reminds us agricultural issues globally are far from solved.

In fact, one of the farm leaders making sure agriculture remains an agenda item with governments is Canadian Jack Wilkinson, long-standing president of the Paris-based International Federation of Agricultural Producers. This year's World Food Day theme, the right to food, is targeted to try to highlight that if farmers are going to feed the continually growing population, they need some help from governments.

To Wilkinson, that means taking measures to provide what he calls a stable and favourable economic environment, but also, a farm policy framework in which farmers have a fair chance to earn reasonable income.

A key issue in this platform is ensuring farmers are equitable partners in the food chain. As food prices rise –and they likely will, if grain prices keep increasing — this will become a hot button, maybe for governments, too.

Farmers get mere pennies for commodities that sell for dollars, and as they get more organized they'll be making sure consumers know how much processors and retailers are getting from the food dollar.

It will be ironic, and somewhat fascinating, if this ends up on the lap of governments to deal with, given that farmers have often said they want to earn income from the market, not from federal or provincial subsidies.

But it might, if the right to food becomes an issue. The right to anything automatically brings government regulations to mind. And when it comes to regulations, farmers have had enough.

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