DOURO – The future of agriculture in Ontario – and in Peterborough County – was on the plate Wednesday night as candidates for the three major parties sat down with local farmers.
The debate, held at the Douro Community Centre, attracted more than 75 people who wanted to hear what Dave Nickle (NDP), Alan Wilson (Progressive Conservative) and incumbent Jeff Leal (Liberal) could tell them about farming, food production, wind energy, solar farms and the role of government in their lives.
The meeting, organized by the Peterborough County Cattlemen and the Peterborough Federation of Agriculture, was moderated by Doug Armstrong.
Wilson said wind turbines, a controversial issue here and in some other parts of the province, represent an intrusion.
“Planning authority has been taken away from municipalities, which disenfranchises you,” he told the audience.
“You need a permit to build a 10-by-10 shed, but the government can just come along and build a wind turbine near you without a word.”
Leal argued the province developed a standard set of rules for wind turbine placement because leaving it to each municipality would result in a “hodgepodge” of rules and bylaws that would clog up the system and eventually result in an impenetrable web of Ontario Municipal Board complaints.
“In fact,” he said, “the AMO (Association of Ontario Municipalities) begged us to bring in a uniform set of standards.”
Nickle rode the fence, saying he wasn’t sure of the science and wanted to learn more about the health effects of wind turbines.
“We need greener energy and greener jobs,” he said. “I just retired as a high school teacher and I can tell you we’ve been hearing a lot about the Wi-Fi issue, and that’s kind of related to this. Public health says (wind turbines are) not an issue. People say it is. We don’t know, and we don’t know what will happen down the road.”
Both he and Wilson said they would favour longer distances between residential homes and wind turbines, more than the 550 metres the province mandates (900 metres for clusters of turbines).
Wilson said 2,000 metres would be better. “If I could sign that paper today, I would,” he said.
But he’s not optimistic about wind energy, he told the crowd, saying this part of the province doesn’t have enough wind to make any local project financially viable.
Wind farms fall under the Green Energy Act, something Wilson said is representative of the intrusive role the Liberal government has taken in farmers’ lives.
“We all live under intrusive regulation that puts your livelihood at risk,” he said, citing the Species at Risk Act that has the potential to shut down farming operations if an endangered animal is found on the property.
“You could end up looking out a solar farm, or a wind turbine … or looking at an inspector.”
Nickle agreed that work needs to be done, but said inspection is a necessity.
“Remember that when we didn’t have enough inspectors we had a thing called – ” he paused, looking for words, before someone in the audience called out “Walkerton.”
Leal put the focus on a local success story: the province’s risk management program, which was developed by a group of Peterborough County farmers he called The Magnificent Seven.
The program, which is still being developed, would work like insurance to protect farmers from failed yields or unforeseen events like a disease outbreak on a cattle farm.
“That’s a made-in-Peterborough solution that will go out across the province,” he said, calling on the federal government to sign on and invest in the program to get it going.
While his opponents both said they favoured a risk management program, Wilson said the Liberal plan is flawed.
“I took it to a farm auditor and his analysis is that farmers would end up not one dime better,” he said. “I support the concept, but this is not it.”
He told the audience his party proposed the plan a decade ago and the Liberals are only reviving it now to win votes.
“You can tell it’s an election,” he said, “because the current MPP is saying he’ll fix this, and he’ll fix that and he’ll fix the other thing, but what he means is they screwed up this, they screwed up that and they screwed up the other thing.”
Nickle ended his remarks by saying the squabbling between the other two parties hurts Ontarians.
“What you just saw here is an attack ad in the flesh,” he said.
After calling for proportional representation, he said an NDP government would put partisan issues aside.
All three candidates supported promoting local products by ensuring provincially funded facilities like hospitals and institutions buy locally.
NOTE: In the audience at the debate were Otonabee-South Monaghan Reeve Dave Nelson, Asphodel-Norwood Deputy Reeve Joe Crowley, Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield Deputy Reeve Andy Mitchell (Jeff Leal’s campaign manager), Douro-Dummer Deputy Reeve Karl Moher and Betsy McGregor, a former federal Liberal candidate.