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Peter Dowling.Courtesy of Andree Thorpe

Peter Dowling: Farmer. Father. Advocate. Dedicated. Born June 7, 1948, in Stouffville, Ont.; died Sept. 6, 2020, in Kingston, of a brain hemorrhage; aged 72.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) once published a book titled Nature Feeds Us. That phrase was central to the life and values of a remarkable Ontario farmer, Peter Dowling.

The second of 13 children born to John and Joyce Dowling, Peter’s family first farmed near Stouffville but soon moved to Howe Island, one of the larger Thousand Islands near Kingston. As children, Peter and his two brothers would drive the tractor while their dad loaded hay on the wagon. One steered, one worked the brake and one worked the clutch, none of them being big enough or strong enough to do the driving on their own.

After high school, Peter majored in crop science at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. In his second year, he met fellow student Dianne Fines at a tobogganing party. Dianne valued Peter’s perspective because it was often different from her own. They married a month after graduation in June, 1973. They lived in Stratford while Peter worked for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture before moving to Howe Island in 1975 where Peter began farming with his parents and brothers.

Like his parents before him, Peter was open to trying new things. Cutting costs started Peter on the organic path, but he soon saw it as the right way to farm. His fields were certified organic in the 1990s, and the dairy cattle in the early 2000s. Hearing his farm politics called “fringe,” Peter said: “I don’t mind being on the fringe. I think of it as being on the leading edge.”

Peter and Dianne’s children, Patrick, Emily and Tim, had a three-day work rotation: kitchen helper, barn helper and a day off. Peter would give brief instructions to children and to farm workers – too brief, in Dianne’s mind. “I want to give them the satisfaction of figuring it out on their own,” Peter said.

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Peter Dowling sharpens a scythe on his farm.Courtesy of Andree Thorpe

Quality family time was doing farm chores together, but also bedtime stories (though he often fell asleep doing it) or a family walk in the fields. Patrick remembers helping his dad with a repair by shining a flashlight on the job. “How do you know how to do this?” Patrick asked. “By holding the flashlight for my Dad.”

He had a remarkable memory for faces, names and numbers. While he had a reputation for being “tighter than bark to a tree,” Peter valued the independence and self-reliance that comes with knowing how to fix things. He watched YouTube videos and chatted up repair people for ideas. If someone referred to farmland as “property” Peter would quickly interject “land.” He recognized farmland as a limited resource that has been monetized. When farmers are outbid by developers, it’s often prime foodland that is lost.

Peter was passionate about issues but not hostile or abrasive. Peter did not often go to the microphone at NFU conventions but when he did, people listened. His voice was quiet, yes, but what he had to say would be worth hearing. In 2019, a buzzing convention hall in Winnipeg went silent when Peter stepped up to speak.

Peter lobbied on behalf of family farmers on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park for decades, all amid the constraints of milking cows and daily farm chores. A fellow farmer once said, “I wondered if Peter’s cows milked themselves.”

In his later years, Peter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He attended movement sessions and in his quiet, humorous way helped build social bonds among the members.

A couple of months before his death, he watched Howe Island’s spectacular sunsets with his grandchildren, aged 4 and 6. Nora and Rowan say they will remember Grandpa in sunsets, and in Grandpa’s joke that, when he cleans up everything on his plate, it is good enough to put back in the cupboard.

Rick Munroe is Peter’s brother-in-law. Dianne Dowling is Peter’s wife.

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