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Wynne courts rural Ontario with pledges on farm regulation, infrastructure

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In a bid to repair the damaged Liberal brand in rural Ontario, Kathleen Wynne pledged Wednesday to look at streamlining complicated regulations governing farms and provide a stable, continuous stream of money to fix countryside roads and bridges.

The premier-designate donned red Wellingtons and trekked to a vegetable farm 50 kilometres north of Toronto for a half-hour meeting with agriculture industry representatives and rural politicians. Her party could badly use a political boost in the countryside: anger over wind turbines coupled with frustration from farmers who felt their concerns were ignored by Queen's Park cost the Liberals rural votes and seats in the past election.

Ms. Wynne reaffirmed a pledge to appoint herself agriculture minister, and responded to fears a city-dweller could never fill the role.

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"My dad spent every summer on a farm in Watford, Ont., and his family still lives there, his cousins still farm that land," she said. "My roots go deep into rural Ontario. And even if they didn't, we need to understand, as urban people, how interrelated we are. We cannot exist without food being grown in the places that I'm standing on today."

On wind power, Ms. Wynne said the government will keep moving forward with its green-energy agenda, but respect some degree of local say in deciding where to build turbines.

For farmers who took part in the meeting, the top issue was the mass of different rules and government departments they must deal with to run their operations. Laws meant to protect wildlife habitat, for instance, govern when they are allowed to reap hay; labour standards, meanwhile, dictate how they must run processing plants on their land.

Some of Ms. Wynne's meeting partners gave positive signals after the sit-down.

"She's a very quick learner," said Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "She recognizes that she needs – she and the party, obviously – to reconnect with rural Ontario and agriculture."

The Progressive Conservatives, who dominated Ontario's countryside in the past election, were quick to cast doubt on Ms. Wynne's ability to do double-duty as premier and agriculture minister.

"We're in a debt and deficit crisis in Ontario, a jobs crisis and a minority government situation. She's got a lot to focus on," said MPP Rod Jackson, whose riding borders the one where Ms. Wynne held her meeting Wednesday. "To give agriculture its due, I think, it really requires someone whose got some background and knowledge in agriculture … it's a steep learning curve."

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The NDP was more circumspect.

"I've got to hope this is not [just] a little bit of lip-service to rural Ontario. Is it good that the premier-elect has decided to do this? Only time will tell," said Gilles Bisson, who represents a rural northern constituency.

But given the number of departments farmers must deal with, many of them saw an upside to having a direct conduit to the head of cabinet.

"We work with everybody inside, whether it be the Ministry of Transportation or whether it be the Ministry of Natural Resources, or any of these ministries," said Jamie Reaume of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association. "Since she's the one who directs traffic, this is a good thing."

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