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Today agriculture is a little greener (2 photos)

In this edition of Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts discusses now Mike Schreiner’s victory brings a new dynamic to Guelph’s leadership position in agriculture and food

We live just around the corner from Mike Schreiner’s Suffolk Street campaign headquarters (the former Folkway Music shop). For a while early Thursday evening, you could hardly navigate the nearby neighbourhood for cars trying to find parking, as people stopped by to wish him well.

Dozens of supporters, including mainstays such as Green Party founding member Bob Desautels, gathered inside and in the small parking lot outside Schreiner’s office for munchies and camaraderie. The mood was friendly, and the buzz and awe were palpable. Although it was premature to predict victory, you could sense the momentum.  

And what a victory it turned out to be for Schreiner in Guelph, with 45 per cent of the vote, 29,000-plus votes -- 15,000 more than PC candidate Ray Ferraro, in an election where it turned out the PCs were on their way to a majority.

The Greens had gains elsewhere as well, but the Schreiner victory here underlined how Guelph is unique among other ridings when it comes to the “green” values his party represents, such as the right to clean air, water and land. These values are shared by all Ontarians, but at their very foundation, they have agriculture written all over them.

And that makes the dynamics of Schreiner’s victory even more fascinating.

Guelph is one of the country’s most important urban centres for agri-food leadership, governance, politics, research, education and business. This sets up what could be one of the election’s biggest wins all around – that is, the slow, careful and welcome integration of culture and knowledge between what are presently two polarized agricultural camps.

One camp is modern, commercial agriculture, the one that plays a huge role in Ontario’s economy. It’s often misunderstood outside rural areas. But its presence is exceptional in Guelph, with the city being the headquarters for many of the province’s livestock and grain groups, plus all the business, research and technology groups that support these farmers.

The other is urban community-based farming, the kind championed by the Greens in their party platform. By nature, urban farming is smaller. It often depends less on technology and inputs like crop protection. Sometimes it’s organic. Schreiner himself is a former owner of an organic business. Organic food and local food, while different, are intertwined in the minds of many members of the public.  

To me, Schreiner is uniquely positioned to help promote a better understanding between these two camps, between rural and urban agriculture.

His campaign manager, Becky Smit, told me the Greens support all farmers. And that’s encouraging. In their platform, the party says Ontario is losing farmland at an unsustainable rate of 365 acres per day, which equals an area the size of Toronto. Farmers big and small agree that farmland preservation is a priority. 

The Greens also support a carbon tax. Many farmers don’t share that view, partially because they see it as a tax on them, and they’ve had it with provincial taxes. The Green platform, however, says the party would invest $200 million over four years to pay farmers to store carbon, and protect water, by raising water-taking fees. That might change some farmers’ minds.

Of course, because the Greens aren’t in power, they won’t be implementing such measures. But given the strong water activism movement in Guelph, I can see Schreiner taking a leading role in pressuring the PC government – the one that says Ontario is now “open for business” (it was before, too) – to raise water-taking fees on the multinationals that are getting the deal of their life on it.      

Overall, the expansive view of agriculture the new MPP will bring to his party as a result of being immersed in areas and activities where politicians tread for meetings, announcements and other officialdom will be immense.

That will be good for him, and good for the party. His background as a farm kid from Kansas has the potential to give him street cred in agriculture. And through dialogue with agri-food leaders, researchers and decision makers in Guelph, he’ll have the chance to see how the sector is evolving, and how farmers are making responsible research-based decisions that promote sustainability. That’s a key Green platform.

And agriculture, too, will benefit from the understanding it gleans from Schreiner about the concerns of citizens he represents. Although the Greens are a comparatively small party provincially (for now), they represent a demographic and philosophical position that agriculture simply must connect with better.

But they’re not small in Guelph. In fact, here, the Greens dominate. The way they and Guelph’s agri-food community learn to understand each other will be one of this election’s most important outcomes