New minister has huge opportunity to promote change

The agriculture industry has started to take a look at how it relates to society on a granular level. That could very well lead to big changes in its leadership and the way it conducts itself, especially by being more inclusive, and by being led provincially by a new minister who is a woman.

Teeswater-area family farmer Lisa Thompson, MPP for the agriculturally significant riding of Huron Bruce, was appointed Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in a Ford government cabinet shuffle Friday.

Many thought Thompson was a natural for that post when Ford came into power, having served as MPP since 2011. Instead, she was made Minister of Education. That didn’t work out very well when she took unpopular stands on sex education, class sizes and teacher unions, consistent with Ford government thinking. She was demoted to lead government and consumer affairs, and lost much of her profile.

But with the premier wanting a cabinet with a new look heading towards an election next year, long-time ag minister Ernie Hardeman (Oxford) was ousted in favour of Thompson. There’s speculation about whether the 26-year political veteran will run again, but not from him. He told the London Free Press he was “not overly enthusiastic” about being cut; after all, he was liked by the farming community, truly did all he could to help young people, and didn’t make any missteps that would merit such treatment.

Anyway, Thompson too is liked by the farm community, as evidenced by the outpouring of congratulations that followed last week’s appointment. You would expect it to some degree, but it seemed unusually fast and robust. For example, Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Brendan Byrne said Thompson “understands the need of rural communities and farmers, and we know she will look for new ways of supporting and helping grow farm businesses and rural economies.” The organization’s CEO, Crosby Devitt, said grain farmers were “thrilled to see this new appointment… with COVID disruptions, trade disputes, volatile markets, and high levels of business risk for farmers, Ontario agriculture needs a strong voice and advocate who understands farmers and farming businesses.”

Through her career, Thompson’s been a strong agricultural education advocate. She isn’t the first woman to serve in the minister’s role – Leona Dombrowsky held the position back at the start of this century – but Thompson is assuming the cabinet post at a time when women have become extremely frustrated with the male-dominated composition of agricultural decision-making entities.

Calls abound for agricultural commodity groups and grower organizations to join the movement towards higher levels of equity, inclusion and diversity (EID). Some have done a great job of it over the years, but there’s still a lot of catching up to do.

One group ahead of the curve is the Ontario Sheep Farmers. As part of what it calls a major overhaul, the organization recently passed a diversity and inclusion policy. It’s also writing a new five-year plan that considers its governance model, policies and procedures and conduct.

General manager Jenn MacTavish is bursting at the seams with enthusiasm.

“It means we are thriving, growing, diversifying and changing,” she says. “I am proud – and yes, a lot biased – about the work [we] are doing and I think it’s important to share that pride.”

She right, and sharing agriculture’s story is key to having a social contract with consumers, who want to make educated decisions about their food purchases and based their opinions about food production on facts and shared values.

The new agriculture minister can usher through change, seize the momentum and lead it. What a huge opportunity for a politician to truly make a difference. Good luck to her.

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