Retired Powassan farmer inducted into Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame

·6 min read

A Powassan resident who once served as president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has been named to the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Roger George, 76, was one of seven people inducted this year during a virtual ceremony, in addition to four people from 2020 who had their induction ceremony cancelled because of COVID-19.

George left England with his wife Rosemary in 1972 for Chisholm Township where he managed a farm of 1,200 pigs.

He owned the farm by the late 1970s.

The purchase became a stepping stone to the political side of farming, which years later would lead to the formation of several agricultural programs that would benefit numerous farmers across many fields.

George financed the pig farm purchase with a nine per cent loan.

But he bought the farm just as interest rates were about to skyrocket during the late 1970s and peak in the early '80s.

“That nine per cent loan soon became 22 per cent and I got involved in farm politics purely out of a desperate need to survive because I was going broke,” George said.

George wasn't alone with his farm financing difficulties – a 1981 meeting with the then-president of the OFA centred on forming a farming federation for Northern Ontario.

George was the founding vice-president of the northern farming federation and his wife, Rosemary, became the group's secretary, a position she held until she passed away in 2007.

George says the federation was radical in its early years, holding major protests to raise awareness that farmers needed help.

One time the group tried meeting unsuccessfully with former Nipissing MP Jean-Jacques Blais.

“He refused to see us so we blocked the front lobby of the Empire Hotel (in North Bay) where he was making an announcement until he agreed to meet with us,” George said.

During this period George also began attending monthly OFA meetings, where he learned he “wasn't the only farmer going belly up.”

George became known as the noisy northern radical at those meetings and made a point of always sitting at the front of the room.

Finally, someone asked him why he sat at the front. His response was, “I'm from the North and it's nice to be near something for a change.”

By 1984, George was elected to the OFA executive and enrolled in an advanced agricultural leadership program designed, he said, to “take rural leaders and train them to become future powerhouse leaders.”

Fast forward to 1990 when George became president of the OFA and former NDP leader Bob Rae was elected Ontario's premier.

It took several years of work under his tenure, but George says the NDP government agreed to enact legislation that required farmers to be registered. They paid a $150 fee each year to the OFA, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario or the National Farmers Union.

This was significant, George says, because until 1993 farmers paid a voluntary $35 a year to various farm organizations, creating a budget of $2 million for the groups to use.

“But overnight our budget grew to $8 million, meaning we had more money to hire better people to help us lobby,” George said.

The stable funding system continues to exist today, but George plays down his role in bringing it about.

“I happened to be there at the right time with the right government. So I just happened to be the guy on the field at that time who caught the touchdown. A lot of the things I did came about through pure political timing. If I take any credit at all it's that I was savvy enough to realize when there was a political opportunity and how to bring people together.”

Such was the case with the Environmental Farm Plan, a program George is particularly proud of.

George says when Rae was elected premier in 1990, he brought with him some MPPs who would be bad for farming, because the word on the street was that this group wanted to ban pesticides.

George said the old way to fight a pesticide ban would have been for farmers to protest at Queen's Park on their tractors.

“Instead, we put together a working group of farm organizations and came up with a 20-page policy statement that said we would develop environmental farm plans within so many years,” he said.

George said his name appears as one of four signatories to the document, but the reality is there were 170 experts and about 50 bureaucrats working together on different models to make the plan work.

George names Gordon Surgeoner of the University of Guelph, an entomologist, as a major figure behind the environmental plan.

“He was the perfect link between the farmers and bureaucrats,” George said.

Surgeoner was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2014.

“I couldn't give you the science behind things like pesticides. But I surrounded myself with people who did and that was one skill I had. I could take Gordon to a meeting and if someone was belly-aching about some pesticide we were using, he would tear apart the science the Ministry of Environment people were using to scrap.”

While George is quick to give credit for programs to other people and play down his own contribution, that's not the case with the Agricultural Adaptation Council, a program he calls his baby.

In 1994, federal finance minister Paul Martin slashed $1 billion from the agriculture budget but offered farmers $250 million nationwide for projects that adapted to farming changes.

With programs that had existed for decades suddenly gone, George got to work fast.

Together with Ontario's deputy minister of agriculture, a program was scrawled on a paper napkin that would see the Rae government direct $7 million a year over four years, for a total of $28 million, to fund innovative farm ideas.

It was the agriculture version of Dragon's Den and exists in a varied format today.

George didn't want to see the money squandered on projects that went nowhere.

However, there was a concern that if the money wasn't used in any fiscal year, it would go back to the federal government.

But George negotiated with the then federal minister of agriculture and agri-food, Ralph Goodale, to roll any unused money into the next fiscal, ensuring the money wouldn't be spent on bad projects simply in an effort to use it before the end of each fiscal year.

George learned in February that he was being inducted into the hall of fame in June and admits at first the announcement meant very little to him.

“At the time I wasn't sure I was happy about it,” he said.

“I was totally retired and happily out of circulation.”

But in the weeks that followed, George got numerous emails and phone calls from people he hadn't heard from for a long time and they “were thrilled” with the news.

George re-examined his earlier feelings, took a look at the 200-plus people who are part of the hall and said he personally knew about 40 of the inductees.

“And I also worked with about 30 of them and thought to myself, 'Yeah, that's not a bad group to be with.'”

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget

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