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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne greeted by anti-wind protesters in Clinton

CLINTON – Beef was on the political menu as Ontario’s rookie premier and agriculture minister ventured deep into Southwestern Ontario’s farm belt Tuesday, unfriendly turf for the Liberals in the last election.

Some of the beef was planned, some of it not so much.

In Lucan, Kathleen Wynne announced $10 million for beef producers for a long-sought risk management program.

Later, she heard angry beefs from wind-turbine opponents in Clinton.

“This is a very important endeavour for me,” she told beef producers at the Lucan-area farm of Mike and Jen Conlin, about her decision to assume the dual roles of premier and minister of agriculture and food.

“You will see as much of me as I can possibly manage,” she told the friendly audience of about 30 producers where Conlin raises 2,300 head of corn-fed beef cattle.

She said the $10 million is seed money the industry sought to “even out their risks,” and she’d be willing to consider similar programs for other commodity groups.

Rural Ontario spurned the ruling Liberals in the last election in 2011, depriving Dalton McGuinty of a third straight majority and leaving his successor, Wynne, to try to defuse such hot-botton issues as rural opposition to wind turbines.

Fence-mending in rural areas, like Huron County, could be tough for the new Liberal leader, judging by the view from the street.

“I think she has a tough assignment – I don’t feel she is being sincere. I don’t get the warm and fuzzies from her,” said Barb Graber of Clinton.

But Mike Stroud, originally of Wasaga Beach, said there’s no fence to mend. He has no beef with the government’s green-energy policies.

The owner of a renewable energy company, Stroud moved to Clinton to take advantage of higher green energy pricing the Liberals brought in. He said he was installing vertical-axis wind turbines, but has switched to installing rooftop solar panels.

“But a lot of these old buildings need roofs and I can’t find enough labourers,” he said.

Wynne, wearing her trademark red Wellington boots in the barnyard muck, said she hopes her dual roles – for one year, as promised – will attract more attention to the importance of Ontario agriculture, its second-largest industry after manufacturing with 700,000 workers.

She faced a hostile crowd of about 80 wind-turbine opponents later in Clinton, when she arrived to address a roundtable on agricultural issues sponsored by the Huron Chamber of Commerce.

Huron-Bruce riding, which takes in Clinton, is considered hostile territory for Wynne and the Liberals because of opposition to turbines.

In the 2011 election, the riding opted against returning agriculture minister Carol Mitchell as MPP, a reflection of the fight against her party’s energy policies that have left 1,100 industrial wind turbines dotting rural Ontario with thousands more planned.

“I am aware there are people outside who are angry,” Wynne said after running a gauntlet of signs, chants and catcalls, some amplified by loud hailers. Security was tight.

“I met a lot of people who are concerned about placement of wind turbines and how we could have a better process,” Wynne told the crowd of 100. Earlier, she told her Lucan audience Energy Minister Brad Duguid is modifying the approvals process for wind farms.

The Liberals took away local control over where the massive wind turbines can be built, angering many in rural areas.

Wynne said in Clinton she was in farm country to listen and she spent time over lunch hearing concerns of the chamber guests.

“I want to hear your suggestions, I want to talk to you,” she told her audience while protesters howled outside.

“I am committed to advancing this sector,” Wynne said in a her brief remarks.

“My approach is to find common ground,” said the former professional mediator.

Good to her word, she asked Central Huron Mayor Jim Gunn to pick three protesters with whom she agreed to meet privately.

After 15 minutes, Dave Griffiths, chair of Bluewater Against Turbines, part of the threesome, said he felt Wynne listened to the concerns.

Still, he said he was startled to hear the premier assert “she feels there is as much opposition as there is support” for wind turbines.

Griffiths said surveys in places like Huron County show opposition is running at 90%.

“I’m not hopeful at all.” he said, asked if he thinks the government will take greater account of local opposition when new turbines are to be erected.