Editorial: The two routes to agriculture minister

Lisa Thompson was recently named the new minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for Ontario, another in a line of female agriculture ministers from Huron-Bruce.

I’ve known Thompson for a long time and she’s spent her life in agriculture. I remember riding the bus while I was taking the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP) and Thompson was along, as a graduate, willing to share her recent experiences that included time in the tech sector in Waterloo. She was one of the first people I saw with a Blackberry, which tells you how long ago that was.

A couple of years back I moderated an event for AALP, with Thompson, current Farm Products Marketing Commission chair Amy Cronin and Farm Credit Canada’s John Geurtens on the panel. 

Thompson was passionate about the potential for agriculture when she spoke. She’s been part of numerous industry organizations. 

As I’ve talked to people about her appointment, I’ve learned many in the sector have a connection with her.

I would be surprised if Thompson didn’t lobby hard for this post – as hard as one can lobby in politics. Many of us assumed the agriculture ministry position was her goal.

There are patterns over time in the naming of ministers and that’s especially true in naming agriculture ministers in Ontario.

Most fall into two categories. The first and most regular is when a minister is named from a riding with a significant agriculture industry. Who better to represent the industry than someone who knows it well? 

Rural MPPs also end up as agriculture minister when the premier decides that they need someone knowledgeable in the role to manage tough issues, or when he or she feels rural ridings deserve strong representation. 

There are numerous rural MPPs for Premier Doug Ford to choose from following the strong support the Conservatives received from rural Ontario in the last election.

That’s the case with the Huron-Bruce riding, as Huron by itself has the highest farmgate receipts in the province. 

The desire to have a rural riding represented in cabinet makes Huron-Bruce a natural choice for agriculture minister and that’s happened in both Conservative and Liberal governments.

I’ve been told that it’s tough being an agriculture minister with agriculture background. Not everyone in the sector can be satisfied and when you have to say no, they’re not just your political clients. They’re your constituents and sometimes your friends and neighbours and relatives.

However, a deep understanding of a complicated sector with a network to lean on has to help a rural MPP in the agriculture ministry role. 

Most of the recent agriculture ministers have fit this mold, including Thompson, her predecessor Ernie Hardeman and Carol Mitchell, Leona Dombrowsky, Steve Peters and Helen Johns.

Johns was the first female minister of agriculture. I recently ran into her in the grocery store. I live just south of the Huron-Bruce riding and was raised in the middle of that riding. To my surprise, she recognized me and we had a good chat.

The second type of agriculture minister is from outside the sector. When the government has no rural representatives, the job falls to someone who needs to be given a post in cabinet. 

The agriculture ministry also tends to be a portfolio in which one stays for a limited time. Of the past 10 Ontario agriculture ministers, only seven served longer than two years.

However, several of the longest-serving agriculture ministers didn’t come from an agriculture background, including Jeff Leal at more than five years, if the time when he was only rural affairs minister is included. Leal had some rural areas in his riding but he was mainly from Peterborough. 

Like Leal, Elmer Buchanan came from the education field in the Peterborough area when he was named agriculture minister during the NDP government of the early 1990s. I still hear that he was a thoughtful and reasonable agriculture minister. 

I’ve generally found the non-agriculture-background ministers to be sincerely thankful that they were agriculture minister and were willing to learn.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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