Politicians love getting out on a farm. The photo opportunities are nearly endless: driving machinery (or pretending to), donning denim, peering onto a lush horizon and rubbing elbows with honest-looking people.
It's on the farms where they hold fundraising barbecues, wear promotional vote-for-me aprons and invite the party leader to slice the roast and dish the potatoes. They're a must-do for any campaign in any riding.
Unless, of course, a riding has virtually no farms.
Welcome to the riding of Guelph.
Curiously, when the riding lines were redrawn in 2003 and Guelph-Wellington became just plain Guelph, defined by the city's boundaries, it became as urban as could be.
Guelph has a bit of farmland and some urban reserve land, where people could grow some crops. But really, the business of farming, not the practice, is what takes place in Guelph.
And that's ironic. Guelph is arguably the most significant agricultural riding in Canada. Three-quarters or so of the $125-million worth of research that takes place annually at the University of Guelph is agricultural. Producer and industry groups have flocked to the riding, making it one of the agricultural business capitals of this country.
Two candidates in the upcoming Guelph byelection, Conservative Gloria Kovach and Liberal Frank Valeriote, are even calling for more agribusiness development on the old York Road jail lands.
Inevitably, Kovach, Valeriote, Tom King of the NDP or Mike Nagy of the Green party, will be representing farm interests like no other urban politicians in the country. Being from Guelph means they'll be called on to demonstrate an understanding of farm topics — including farm politics, trends, markets and research, among them — and at times, be able to explain and describe these topics to their colleagues in Ottawa.
In separate interviews last week, each candidate said they appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. Though they're not farmers, they are passionate about food and food issues, which invariably leads back to farm issues.
For example, King says he worries about agriculture's emphasis on profit, and how it impacts on sustainability. He knows farmers need to make a living. But he wonders if there are ways to grow food without either huge subsidies or environmental degradation.
If elected, King says he'd see his role as a facilitator for the sector, getting people excited about agricultural issues and focusing on public education. Guelph has an opportunity to come together as a community and talk about thorny or unclear agricultural issues, and should do so, he says, given its national agricultural leadership role. For example, is the 100-mile diet more than a noble gesture? Are we prepared to get by without bananas and coffee? These questions can lead to deeper discussions about sustainability and globalism.
For her part, Kovach saw Guelph's leadership role in agriculture firsthand when federal agri-food minister Gerry Ritz visited the riding recently and met with commodity groups including the Ontario Corn Producers Association. A hot button in and out of farming is grain-based ethanol, and she says she and the minister heard association representatives tell the Conservatives to "stay the course" on their pro-ethanol policies, which they intend to do. It's good for the economy and good for farm families, she maintains.
But while she believes agriculture is important to Guelph, she hasn't heard farm topics captivate voters. She says during her door-to-door campaign agricultural issues have occasionally come up, such as food safety and carbon credit trading. But most people are focused on other matters, she says, citing war, bilingualism and international policy among them.
To the Green party's Nagy, almost all roads lead back to farming, due to his party's sustainability platform that ties in the food supply and climate change with food security, and his personal interest in soil science.
Nagy says people in the Guelph riding demonstrate their interest in food production through activities such as the Buy Local food map and community supported agriculture plots.
To enhance his understanding of sustainability, Nagy takes part in activities such as workshops offered through Wellington County's land stewardship program, which has helped him appreciate that modern farming systems must be vigilant about environmental matters such as soil conservation, erosion and compaction. "If we don't take care of farmers and the land," he says, "we won't have any food."
The Liberals' Valeriote says Guelph's unique connection to agriculture would prompt him to work with other elected officials — mayors and members of provincial parliament, for example — to create a regional agriculture and food advisory council. The issues are huge, while expertise, including resources at the University of Guelph, is plentiful, he says, adding such an initiative would help bring informed discussion to Ottawa.
Valeriote thinks we need to build sustainable economies locally and nationally, but also have an eye toward ways Guelph's research expertise can help farmers and others in underdeveloped countries maintain sustainability. This means a much greater investment in international development, and committing resources to support non-food sources for energy. That way, renewable fuel programs will have options other than food crops for feedstocks, resulting in less pressure on food supplies.
Some observers have said there's not much at stake in this byelection. I disagree.
For agriculture, let alone Guelph constituents, the stakes are extremely high. It needs a strong federal voice, regardless of how the dice land.