EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
In Dufferin County, as usual, Doug Ford got a warm reception from farmers — mostly.
The premier took the stage to a chorus of applause and a smattering of boos from dozens of attendees at the 2023 International Plowing Match and Rural Expo, held this year in Bowling Green. The tiny settlement is 20 minutes from Orangeville, which sits just inside the Greenbelt's northwestern bend.
The Plowing March serves as an annual opportunity for MPPs to mingle with farmers and show off their rural bona fides, or at least pretend to have some. There are tractors, Canadian Cowgirls, bagpipes and chicken-on-a-stick. It's not the best setting for partisan grumbling. But with some controversies, it can't be helped.
Some of the booers held up signs urging Ford to keep his Greenbelt promise — a reference to his 2018 pledge not to touch the protected land.
Ford avoided any mention of housing and the environment in his speech, focusing on his government's moves to build infrastructure, cut the gas tax and expand broadband.
Former housing minister Steve Clark and his replacement, Paul Calandra, were among the few members of the PC caucus who were absent from the event on Tuesday.
"Just imagine if you went to fill up the gas and we never cut over 10-cents-a-litre," Ford said in his speech, referring to his 5.7-cents-a-litre cut that will remain in place at least until the end of 2023.
Opposition leaders speaking after the premier — and directly in front of him — had no problems noting the scandal.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles notes that she grew up on a family farm.
"So it makes me appreciate even more, here in our beautiful province, that farmland like this is one of our most precious resources," she said. The crowd ate it up. "And I know and you know that those farmlands are at risk."
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said it was a "trust that was broken."
"It was really hard to talk about because like I said, it's a celebration," he told reporters afterwards. "People here, they want to celebrate the way of life they have in rural Ontario ... I just had to address the elephant in the room."
Ford refused to scrum with reporters after his speech. Asked about the controversy after his speech by a pack of jogging reporters, the premier said he had expanded the Greenbelt's size overall — which is technically true, but misleading since the land added was already protected through other means, and the land removed is mostly prime farmland.
What was removed is "some of the best farmland in North America," Green Leader Mike Schreiner said in his scrum. "You're not going to replace that with urban river valleys. You're just simply not."
Some attendees felt the same way.
"I don't think they should be changing it at all," said Fergus resident Lorna Attison.
"Leave it the way it is," her bench-mate, Murray Burnett, said.
Ford's argument that it's necessary to build the estimated 50,000 homes (about three per cent of the government's goal of 1.5 million by 2031) didn't resonate with Attison.
"Housing — what are people going to eat if you destroy all the farmland?" she said.
A small break followed the political party leaders' speeches. Then came the V.I.P. Plowing Match, where the four leaders compete to see who can plow the straightest furrow. It was expected to be a close competition.
Stiles, who grew up on a family farm in Newfoundland, said she'd been getting some lessons from MPP John Vanthof, a fellow New Democrat, on his farm.
As it turns out, driving in a straight line is relatively easy and each leader did a great job.