The Rob Ford Effect: Farmers Need to Set Municipal Politicians Straight

Rob Ford. Photo Credit: Louise Morin, West Annex News.
Rob Ford. Photo Credit: Louise Morin, West Annex News.

Rob Ford. Photo Credit: Louise Morin, West Annex News.

Kudos to municipal politicians who at least try to understand day-to-day farm issues. Of any elected officials, they should be closest to farmers. Rural and urban issues intersect at the municipal level to a great extent, even though we are an exporting nation, and even though provinces are immersed in supporting agriculture.

Several provinces will hold municipal elections this fall – Ontario, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, as well as rural municipalities in Saskatchewan. The electorate always gets geared up for local politics, because municipal issues affect them so directly.

But it seems to me this year — in Ontario, at least — election fever started very early, way back in the early summer months, long before the October 27 municipal election was even on most voters’ radar.

Maybe there’s a ripple effect from the ceaseless Rob Ford circus in Toronto. Or maybe with people’s ongoing drive towards the security of a community and all things local, municipal politics are taking on an even greater meaning to voters.

I’m not sure, but whatever it is, in Ontario this municipal election has the makings of an unusually vigorous political slugfest.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture wants farmers to get involved, wade into the municipal conversation and speak up. As urban Canadians increasingly feel a part of agriculture through continued local food development, so will their elected representatives be urged to offer their opinions on it.

But farming has one up on everyone. There’s no bigger constituency than food consumers. And there are no bigger issues than the production of food, the most basic need of all.

And that’s fine, if these representatives are bringing forward important issues that have urban and rural angles, such as transportation and employment.

But if they’re trying in earnest to make decisions on agricultural matters they really don’t understand (e.g., raising livestock in their backyard, farming equipment using municipal roadways and support for basic research, among them) farming has a problem.

You’d think that given all the communication platforms at our disposal, information sharing would be easier than ever. But that’s not the case. Even though the pursuit of local food keeps climbing, the understanding of rural issues does not. Everyone with a cause has access to the same communication platforms as farmers, as uses them at least as effectively. The competition to get noticed is huge.

But farming has one up on everyone. There’s no bigger constituency than food consumers. And there are no bigger issues than the production of food, the most basic need of all.

Yet, as the federation says, farmers are a minority in most Ontario municipalities. That means they must be active as farm families and farm business owners. They must work with local governments to help them understand agriculture and not let rural communities be forgotten.

“We must be sure that local services to farmers, farm families and farm businesses are top of mind with candidates,” says federation president Mark Wales.

This plea is not unlike a similar request the federation made to farmers prior to June’s provincial election in Ontario. Farm issues transcend political borders, which the federation reminded farmers of when candidates were creating provincial platforms.

Photo Credit: Tom Barrett

Photo Credit: Tom Barrett

Municipally, the overarching message to farmers from the federation is similar: get active.  Make sure municipal office candidates hear and understand the concerns of farm constituents. Then, if they’re elected, they can make informed decisions on issues that impact agriculture.

The federation echoes comments about the importance of local governments to people’s lives – specifically, to farmers. “Municipal leaders are responsible for important community functions, including services, building and maintaining infrastructure, waste management and land use planning,” says Wales. Municipal councillors are also responsible for funding all these services, roadways and bridges through taxpayer and farm property tax dollars.

To help, the federation has created an elections kit that can guide farmers’ discussions about agriculture with local municipal candidates. The kit, available at www.ofa.on.ca, includes a sample letter to candidates, background on municipal governance, and information and questions to ask candidates on nearly 20 different issues from land use planning to wildlife damage, drainage and natural gas service.

Farmers should get out in front of this now. As fall approaches, more candidates will be gearing up for the October election. There’s really only one way food production messages will get on their agenda, and that’s through the active involvement of farmers.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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