For Ontario’s political leaders it is the all-important meeting in the hayfield.
Even before they get together for next week’s debates, the party leaders – Liberal Dalton McGuinty, Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath – will all be together Tuesday for the opening day of the International Plowing Match in the community of Chute-à-Blondeau in Prescott-Russell.
It is the Olympics for rural Ontario and an annual must-attend event for the province’s politicians, even more so this year because of the election campaign.
A no-show is a huge political gaffe.
“You’d be noticed,” warns Cathy Lasby, executive director of the Ontario Plowmen’s Association, which is the “parent host” of the event.
Set in a 100-acre field, which becomes a small community of 600 exhibitors and farmers from across Canada – and a few international guests – the five-day event is expected to attract about 90,000 people.
Between 15,000 and 18,000 people are expected to show up for the opening day, Ms. Lasby predicts.
She says the match costs $3.6-million to set up and is estimated to leave more than $20-million in the community.
Each leader rides in the opening parade Tuesday, most on hay wagons. The parties each have a float – one year the Liberals gave out apples from theirs.
Most important, however, is the plowing competition. The leaders will compete against each other. Mr. McGuinty will drive the red Massey Ferguson tractor, Mr. Hudak will drive the Blue Ford tractor, Ms. Horwath will be on an orange Kubota tractor and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner will be on the green John Deere.
In addition, the leaders will be given a chance to deliver remarks on stage.
Mr. McGuinty will emphasize his risk-management program, aimed at providing more stable, long-term support for farmers.
Mr. Hudak, who represents a Southern Ontario riding where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, will highlight his party’s plan to help farmers through a business risk-management plan, which is designed to protect supply management.
Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, will provide more details about her plan to help young people become farmers or stay in farming.
Ms. Lasby says her organization and the farmers want to hear the leaders’ agricultural platforms and how important they feel agriculture is.
“Sometimes we think agriculture is forgotten about and probably taken for granted,” she says.
More than the message for the leaders’ handlers, however, is that money shot – capturing on film that Green Acres-like moment of the city slicker driving a plow through a field.
The photo op shows a different side of the leader – relaxed, in jeans, in a hayfield and instead of working a crowd, working the land.
During the plowing competition, each leader will have a coach and the one who plows the straightest line wins.
There is no trophy for the winner – but that doesn’t really matter. “Just bragging rights and photo ops,” Ms. Lasby says.